The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964) ***

Despite the title and Hammer’s penchant for the unholy, there is nothing satanical about this picture. Christopher Lee (The Whip and the Body, 1963)  less cadaverous than in his better-known incarnation as Dracula, plays the captain of ship called Diablo, part of the defeated Spanish Armada, who lands in 1588 on British shores and by convincing the locals that the British have been defeated  imposes an occupation.

Writer (and later director) Jimmy Sangster’s clever premise works, the lord of the manor (Ernest Clark) immediately surrendering and befriending the invaders, most of the villagers succumbing, a few more doughty lads (Andrew Keir and son John Cairney to the fore) rebelling. 

Running alongside its regular horror output, Hammer had a sideline in swashbucklers, the Men of Sherwood Forest (1954), Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), The Pirates of Blood River (1962) and The Scarlet Blade (1963) – aka The Crimson Blade – preceding this, and all, interestingly, aimed at the general rather than adult market. Australian director Don Sharp, in the first of several teamings with Lee, does extraordinary well with a limited budget. Although the village square was a leftover from The Scarlet Blade, there is a full-size galleon, swamps, fog, floggings, a hanging, fire, chases, a massive explosion, and a number of better-than-average fencing scenes.

In other hands, more time could have been spent exploring the psychology of occupation, but despite that there is enough of a story to keep interest taut. Lee has a high-principled lieutenant who secretly subverts his master’s wishes. Tension is maintained by Lee’s ruthlessness, the efforts of captured women to escape, and attempts to seek outside help. While the intended audience meant toning down actual violence, Sharp creates a menacing atmosphere. The final scenes involving sabotage are tremendously well done.

A rare outing for Lee outside of the horror genre, he truly commands the screen, an excellent actor all too often under-rated who holds the picture together. Andrew Keir (The Viking Queen, 1967) and Ernest Clark (Masquerade, 1965) provide sterling support. Suzan Farmer (The Crimson Blade, 1963) plays the requisite damsel in distress.  Director Don Sharp (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) was another horror regular responsible for, among others, Curse of the Fly (1965) and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), the latter reuniting him with Lee.

I should acknowledge a vested interest as John Cairney was a distant relative and I do remember as a child being taken to see his previous outing Jason and the Argonauts (1963) but, strangely enough, this one was given a miss by my parents. I wonder if the title put them off.

CATCH-UP: Christopher Lee was so prolific I have only so far reviewed a fraction of his 1960s output: Beat Girl/Wild for Kicks (1960), Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), The Whip and the Body (1963), The Gorgon (1964), She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967). The Devil Rides Out (1968),  The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969).  Quite enough to be getting on with if want an idea of this fine actor’s range and ability.

The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) ****

The 1960s was awash with movie megalomaniacs, most courtesy of the spy vogue. You could also count on secret agents for trailing in their wake bevies of beauties. So no surprise then that criminal mastermind Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee) has his own gang, his “brides,” although they are hardly volunteers, being the kidnapped daughters of top scientists. His plan for global domination this time consists of transmitting energy as sound waves, using miniaturization, a sonic death ray, with enough power to destroy a city.

The result is good hokum, a thriller set in the 1920s with a cracking pace, plenty of action, explosions, burgeoning romance, and  plot that gets more complicated by the minute as a tribe of worthies try out to outwit the evil genius. There is a terrific lair – where the disobedient end up in a snake pit – a passable laboratory, chases, truth serums (“the dust that loosens tongues”), hypnotism, bait-and-switch tricks and decent special effects.  Three stories race along in a parallel pell-mell: Manchu needs one more kidnapping to complete his complement of daughters; the good guys headed by Fu Manchu’s old adversary Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer) are trying to locate the bad guy’s secret location while at the same time attempting to find out where he will strike next. 

While Fu Manchu is indestructible – supposed dead after the previous film – his henchmen (and henchwomen) are all too human. It takes three attempts to kidnap Manchu’s next victim. They are easily identifiable by their giveaway cummerbunds and bandannas and their method of assault is not kung fu but brawling so a good solid British punch of the old-school soon sorts them out. Manchu’s daughter Lin Tang (Tsai Chin) is a chip off the old block, delighted at any opportunity to torment the brides.  

The brides wear diaphanous gowns that might have been a job-lot from the set of She, but are far from compliant, even rebelling at one point, and employing vicious fight tactics. Fans of director Don Sharp will find him every bit as inventive as in The Devil-Ship Pirates and Bang, Bang, You’re Dead. It’s another Harry Alan Towers (written under his pseudonym Peter Welbeck) production so that means an international cast. Two television cops, British Rupert Davies (BBC’s Maigret) and German Heinz Drache (cop in a Francis Durbridge series), plus Francois Mitterand’s brother-in-law Roger Hanin, provide solid support. Not forgetting Burt Kwouk as a henchman. Brides of the Year include French Marie Versini (German western Winnetou, 1963) and Rhodesian Carole Gray (Curse of the Fly, 1965). The film did not prove much of a jumping-off point for other brides such as Ulla Berglin, Danielle Defrere and Anje Langstraat, for whom this debut was as far as their careers went.

Christopher Lee, despite the dodgy moustache, is resplendent, exuding evil, and with a gift for rising again (just like Dracula) as he would do for another three films in the series.

Note: The Devil-Ship Pirates and Bang, Bang, You’re Dead are reviewed on this blog.

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966) ***

All hail Senta Berger! Another from the Harry Alan Towers (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) portfolio, this is a spy-thriller mash-up with a bagful of mysteries and a clutch of corpses. At last given a decent leading role, and although you wouldn’t guess it from either poster, Senta Berger steals the show from the top-billed Tony Randall (as miscast as Robert Cummings in Five Golden Dragons) and a smorgasbord of European  talent including Herbert Lom (The Frightened City, 1961), Terry-Thomas, Klaus Kinski (Five Golden Dragons), John Le Mesurier and Wilfred Hyde-White (Carry On Nurse, 1959). In this company, the glamorous Margaret Lee (Five Golden Dragons), as Lom’s cynical lover (“you are never wrong, cherie, you told me so yourself,” she tells him) is an amuse-bouche.

A more comedic approach to the movie when it was re-titled for U.S. release. At least here it did not try to sell itself as a Bond-type picture.

Six travellers – including oilman Randall, travel agent Le Mesurier, salesman Hyde-White and tourist Berger, meeting her fiancé – board a bus from Casablanca airport to Marrakesh. One is carrying $2 million as a bribe to ease through a vote in the United Nations, but bad guy Lom doesn’t know which one it is. When Berger’s fiance’s corpse tumbles out of Randall’s cupboard, the pair become entangled. Berger is a marvellous femme fatale, trumping Randall at every turn. 

With no shortage of complications, the tale zips along, directed on occasion with considerable verve by Don Sharp (The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964). There are some inventive double-plays – with a body in the boot Berger and Randall are stopped by a cop who tells them their boot is open. An excellent rooftop chase is matched by a car chase. And there’s a terrific shootout. Kinski is at his sinister best and Terry-Thomas a standout in an unusual role as a Berber.

The film was shot on location including the city’s souks, the ruined El Badi Palace and La Mamounia hotel (featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956). But Berger seamlessly holds the whole box of tricks together, at once glamorous and sinuous, practical and tough and exuding sympathy, and it’s a joy to see her for a large part of the picture leading Randall by the nose. Quite why this did not lead to bigger Hollywood roles than The Ambushers (1967) remains a mystery.

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