A Shirley Eaton/Sumuru double header! Blue Underground has released
on Blu-ray THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU and THE GIRL FROM RIO Double Feature,
a single disc, 50GB dual layer transfer of these Harry Alan Towers written and
produced 1960s spy outings. 1967’s THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU, directed
by Lindsay Shonteff, features Eaton, Frankie Avalon, George Nader, Klaus Kinski,
and Wilfrid Hyde-White, while cult exploitation fans will perk up at 1969’s
sequel-of-sorts, THE GIRL FROM RIO, featuring Eaton, Richard Wyler, George Sanders,
Maria Rohm, and Elisa Montes, and directed by Jess Franco. The anamorphically-enhanced
widescreen transfers here look sensational (particularly GIRL), while extras,
ported over from the earlier BU standard disc release, include a nice doc on
the making of THE GIRL FROM RIO.
Blonde, long-legged assassin Erna (Ursula Rank, AGENTE 070, THUNDERBAY MISSIONE GRASSHOPPER, AGENT 3S3, MASSACRE IN THE SUN), the right-hand woman of arch-villain Sumuru (Shirley Eaton, GOLDFINGER, TEN LITTLE INDIANS), blows up the funeral procession of the world’s richest man, taking out his 17 pallbearing sons in the process. The same dreadful fate, Sumuru darkly intones over the soundtrack, awaits any man who stands in her way, and who opposes her ultimate mission: to make over Earth into a world of peace and love controlled solely by women. Sumuru realizes that the number one impediment to such a transformation is women’s need to be loved by men, so when one of her minions in Rome falls in love, Sumuru personally dispatches her assassins to kill her. Unfortunately, the death of this gang member — she had infiltrated the office of the Sinonesia Chief of Security, as his secretary — perks up the ears of Intelligence Colonel Sir Arthur Baisbrook (Wilfrid Hyde-White, CARRY ON NURSE, THE LIQUIDATOR) of Her Majesty’s Government, who discovers Sumuru’s vast criminal organization. Sir Arthur believes the Sinonesian President Boong (Klaus Kinski, SECRET OF THE RED ORCHID, PSYCHO-CIRCUS) is the final target of Sumuru, so he presses vacationing CIA freelancer Nick West (George Nader, ROBOT MONSTER, THE HOUSE OF A 1,000 DOLLS) into helping...and if rich playboy Tommy Carter (Frankie Avalon, SERGEANT DEADHEAD, SKI PARTY) wants to tag along, all the merrier. Almost framed for the murder of one of Sumuru’s horny sentries in Rome, the two chick-chasing agents head for Hong Kong, where Sumuru abducts Nick to her private island/villainess lair. Soon Nick is working both sides of the street, trying to bring down the beautiful maniac with the help of Sumuru’s new addition, Helga (Maria Rohm, EUGENIE, SEX CHARADE), who can’t resist both Nick’s and Tommy’s charms.
Legendary schlockmeister writer/producer Harry Alan Towers (THE FACE OF FU MANCHU, THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS) had yet another sizeable international hit with this low-budget adaptation of a Sax Rohmer fictional villain (THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU was often paired up with Towers’ other successful Rohmer adaptation for 1967, THE VENGEANCE OF FU MANCHU — this Blue Underground disc has some gallery stills of the advertising used for that tempting double bill). Rohmer created the female super villainess Sumuru after WWII, when the BBC radio service asked the English author to come up with a series that didn’t involve Rohmer’s politically incorrect — and fabulously popular — creation, Fu Manchu. And thus the very similar Sumuru was created. Later, Rohmer took the eight radio scripts and adapted them into The Sins of Sumuru, the first of five popular Sumuru novels, the last one published in 1956. Towers, a charming, amoral rogue whose legendary exploits in the movie world also included once getting busted for running a upscale call girl ring, certainly had no problem bringing the controversial Fu Manchu character to the big screen, so THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU was a no-brainer in terms of Towers squeezing dry his financially beneficial relationship with Rohmer literary properties. It’s possible, too, that Bondian farce SUMURU’s green light may have gone through in order to glom onto the worldwide publicity surrounding 20th Century-Fox’s highly anticipated Derek Flint spy spoof sequel, IN LIKE FLINT, in 1967, that featured a similar Rohmerian plot involving an organization of women taking over the world’s male-dominated political order (Towers had a knack for lightning fast rip-offs timed to the release of bigger-budgeted, highly publicized Hollywood pictures).
Whatever the reason for its inception...THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU turns out to be a surprisingly nimble, enjoyable little goof. The opening Bondian pre-credit sequence — the funeral and bridge-blowing of the pallbearers — comes over nicely, thanks to Eaton’s amusingly intimidating intonation of Sumuru’s cartoonish, megalomaniacal threat to the entire male species: “This is the funeral of the richest man in the world. These are his seventeen sons. Soon they will share his fate…along with all other men who oppose my will. The eyes of this girl are watching them, as maybe, some other girl’s eyes are watching you. I have a million eyes…for I am Sumuru!”. Even better is the next scene, when Erna returns to Sumuru’s island fortress, and witnesses the gorgeous AIP contract star Salli Sachse strangling a man with her thighs (lucky bastard), for the limp entertainment of Sumuru’s blase, barely-interested henchwomen (with those uniforms and patches, they look like a bunch of jaded stews awaiting their boarding assignments). When Sachse looks to Rohm to see if mercy should be given, the answer is a curt shake of the head, “no,” and Sachse immediately snaps his neck. Director Lindsay Shonteff (THE SECOND BEST SECRET AGENT IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, the gritty, remarkable PERMISSIVE) gives the scene just the right amount of straight-faced perversity, making you wonder if THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU is going to be a whole lot better than you thought it might be, especially when Eaton then arrives, looking ridiculously beautiful and cold and campy as hell (her posing is hilarious), before she dispatches her black bikini-clad assassins to kill a traitor via horseplay dunking in the ocean (bet the kids on the other beach loved that).
If the rest of THE MILLION
EYES OF SUMURU doesn’t quite live up to that promising mondo/sicko opening,
at least we have agreeably silly George Nader routinely cracking us up with
his good-natured wheezes and funny throw-aways. Written by cameraman/second
unit director Kevin Kavanagh (SANDERS), from a story by Harry Alan “Peter
Welbeck” Towers, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU has such an ingratiating looseness
to its tone, it’s difficult to get mad at its missed opportunities. It
might have been fun to have somebody actually make something out of the fact
that Sumuru wants to control all men...or kill them (we never hear a reason
why she hates men). But the screenplay really isn’t into anything that
heavy. It’s too bad, too, there wasn’t a bit more political satire
in it; we have to be content with a single line from uber-English Hyde-White:
his pompous dismissal of Asian politics as those “musical comedy governments
in that part of the world.” A bit more action would have been nice, too;
Rohm’s foot chase through the streets of Hong Kong is fairly dull (as
is Nader’s car chase), while fistfights are kept to a distressing minimum.
This being 1967, nudity was still basically a no-no for an AIP-released exploiter
(hard to say what’s in that reported original 95 minute cut; this disc’s
print times out at 79 minutes — Towers’ productions were often cut
up according to a particular country’s censorship level). But through
the miracle of crystal-clear Blu-ray freeze framing, you can spot Rohm’s
barely-there side boob nip-slip, just for today’s fans (I wonder if it
drove moviegoers crazy back then, wondering what they thought they
saw in these brief flashes). And most importantly: I wish there had been a whole
lot more of Eaton as Sumuru. After all, one does get the impression from that
title that the villainess will be front and center. However, most of THE MILLION
EYES OF SUMURU’s screen time is taken up by Nader and then Avalon. They’re
amusing, no doubt, but I’m more interested in a female version of Fu Manchu
at this point, rather than another cheap European Bond rip-off, particularly
when Eaton is so clearly right for this part: ice cold, hard-eyed, gorgeous-but-deadly
(she looks incredible as a brunette), and funny as hell playing this ridiculous
part perfectly straight. She gets that it’s all a joke. She should have
been onscreen far more often, but third billing is third billing, so....
Luckily, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU is entertaining enough that you can just groove along with what it is, and not care too much about what it isn’t. Key to that good vibe is failed 1950s Universal Pictures heartthrob George Nader, who moved to Europe and became a big, big star making trash like this. Frankie Avalon may be top billed, but he was rapidly winding down his B leading man days, and his bland turn in THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU is a good indication why. He still manages a pert BEACH PARTY gee whiz quality, which would have been fine in 1963...but in 1967 it already looks quaint next to Nader’s more with-it cynicism. Genuinely bright and relaxed and having a good time (or at least making the best of a less-than-perfect situation), Nader is well cast as a secret agent who doesn’t take any of his on-screen activities seriously. When the movie’s pace flags, he re-energizes our interest with a knowing way around his groaner lines, making them work again and again. When he and Avalon decide to infiltrate Sumuru’s Rome villa, conflict-avoiding Nader gallantly shoos Avalon in front of him, insisting, “Lead! Lead!” Throwaway lines abound, and Nader does them so well you wonder if he ad-libbed (my favorite is when he tells an unseen operator to dial a telephone number, and then replies in the receiver, “What do you mean, ‘Bingo!’?”). His seduction by Eaton is perfectly played (he resists out of fear until saying the hell with it: “I may hate myself in the morning, but well...why not?”), while his stripped-to-the-waist torture by Sumuru, complete with whippings and kisses, is an iconic image from 1960s European exploitation (“You see: I can be kind,” she purrs after laying one on him...before he snickers at her, “Honey—I had better than that in high school,”). By the final bloodless assault on Sumuru’s ersatz Bondian lair and its chintzy power plant — lots of plywood L beams and oversized water spigots; rather like Ken Adams on a CAPTAIN VIDEO budget — Avalon is shooting it out with no one on a tiny Shaw Brothers soundstage while an unconcerned Nader is rolling around on the floor, making out with Sachse as the bullets fly. THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU is quintessential Harry Alan Towers crap at its breezy best.
High in the Brazilian mountains above Rio de Janeiro, Femina, a hidden, all-female city, is ruled by ruthless arch-criminal Sunanda (Shirley Eaton, GOLDFINGER, THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU). Her mission? To put every single man on Earth under her thumb. She fuels her war on men with money stolen from other criminals; that’s why she’s very interested in the arrival of handsome adventurer/thief Jeff Sutton (Richard Wyler, CHARGE OF THE LANCERS, DICK SMART). Since Rio has no extradition laws with any other country, Sutton isn’t hiding the fact that he stole $10 million dollars in a Barcelona armored car robbery (...or did he?); his story even makes the Rio papers. Sutton checks into Rio’s swankiest hotel and immediately — and I mean immediately — hooks up with hotel manicurist Leslye Manors ("Mrs. Harry Alan Towers" Maria Rohm, NIGHTMARES COME AT NIGHT, THE BLOODY JUDGE). Meanwhile, Rio crime boss Sir Masius (Oscar winner George Sanders, LAST PLANE TO BAALBECK, PSYCHOMANIA) also covets Sutton’s millions, but he wants to bring down rival Sunanda more, so he’ll use Sutton as bait to get the jump on Sunanda and her fabulous stash of gold bars — a ploy inadvertently aided by Leslye, who turns out to be one of Sunanda’s minions.
It was inevitable that after writer/producer Harry Alan Towers scored a sizeable international hit with THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU, he would look to swiftly capitalize on the Sax Rohmer character with a cheapy sequel...with the co-production aid of German, Spanish, and American money, of course. Looking for a director who could work as quickly as Towers could write, the producer forged an alliance with Spanish jack-of-all trades Jess Franco. Franco, who had worked his way up through the Spanish film industry, had helmed several money-making exploitation titles since the early 1960s, including THE HORRIBLE DR. ORLOFF and Eddie Constantine’s ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS, along with several James Bond Eurospy knock-offs like A SPY IN THE CITY and LUCKY, THE INSCRUTIBLE. He worked fast and cheap, and his aesthetic — lurid, erotic thrills in the service of pulpy storylines — didn’t interfere with Towers’ prime directive: never go over budget. It was a financially successful business collaboration; critics at the time didn’t like their movies (if they were reviewed at all), but Harry Alan “Peter Welbeck” Towers-produced and scripted/Jess Franco-directed movies like THE BLOOD OF FU MANCHU, 99 WOMEN (a third of which was shot on the fly in Rio when Franco came in a week ahead of THE GIRL FROM RIO’s shooting schedule), MARQUIS DE SADE’S JUSTINE, THE BLOODY JUDGE, and COUNT DRACULA, satisfied exhibitors’ pre-sales and that’s all that mattered to Towers. According to Franco, THE GIRL FROM RIO’s shoot went off without trouble (that would have to be a first for him), with the only major hiccup coming in post-production, when a threatened lawsuit from the Sax Rohmer estate necessitated a pre-emptive change in the dubbing: all references to “Sumuru” were changed to “Sunanda” (perhaps to further stymie the lawyers, the credits list Eaton as “Sumitra”). Released under a wide variety of names, including RIO 70, CITY WITHOUT MEN, THE SEVEN SECRETS OF SUMURU, and my personal favorite non sequitur, MOTHERS OF AMERICA, THE GIRL FROM RIO did what it was supposed to do: make a profit on a relatively small outlay.
From the opening shot of THE GIRL FROM RIO (or at least the opening shot of this particular version of the movie...), we know instantly one big thing has changed from the earlier THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU: censorship standards. Franco’s long, slow pan up the mesh-covered naked body of Eaton henchwoman Beni Cardoso (VAMPYROS LESBOS, BARB WIRE DOLLS), before she and her helpers sexually torture a male spy while Eaton “looks on” (Eaton claims she wasn’t aware of Franco making this a sex picture), wouldn’t have gotten by most censors in 1966. By 1969, however, such a shot was unremarkable in European sexploitation fare. Even more obvious is the difference in directorial vision between THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU and THE GIRL FROM RIO; while director Lindsay Shonteff crafted a breezy, mostly comic — and largely innocent — James Bond spoof, director Jess Franco has brought a visually impressive — if shakily constructed and produced — adult comic book to life, full of his recognizable sexual obsessions and fetishes. Open, in-your-face nudity and dreamlike, over-emphatic staging (we can’t tell if everyone is writhing in pleasure of pain. Or both) compliments Franco’s fixations on women as sexual dominators who are to be ogled for their sheer sensuality and eroticism, and feared for their power to sexually destroy a man. Even in a lightweight affair such as THE GIRL FROM RIO, Franco’s neuroses about human sexuality have a strange, steady, inexorable beat that’s probably deeply personal and fairly inscrutable...but neuroses offered up without self-censorship or judgment for our enjoyment.
A common complaint against THE GIRL FROM RIO, and indeed many of Franco’s movies, is that its plot is often incoherent. How much of that was Franco’s inability to shoot straight, as it were, and how much of it was budgetary constraints and post-production tampering, is subject for debate. In THE GIRL FROM RIO, though, the opening scene is missing from this Blue Underground print, where Walter Rilla, as a wealthy businessman, hires Richard Wyler to rescue his daughter, Ulla (Marta Reves, DAKOTA JOE, KISS ME, MONSTER), from the clutches of Eaton. Another missing critical scene follows: Wyler’s armored car heist. With the way the movie now opens, we have no idea who Wyler is, or what he’s doing in Rio, until he meets Ulla halfway through the movie. That being said... THE GIRL FROM RIO still makes more sense than quite a few later Franco movies I’ve seen. Franco stated he was given a bigger budget than he was used to by Towers, and it shows. We’re not talking Bondian production values (or even Matt Helm), but THE GIRL FROM RIO looks semi-professional, with some striking color cinematography in Madrid and Rio from Manuel Merino, and appropriately weirdo spy-fi production design from Peter Manhardt. The opening reel moves well enough, with handsome Wyler at least looking the part as he essays a stiff-but-confident ersatz Bond, before nailing beautiful Maria Rohm (he tops Connery when he casually forgets her name after a couple of days of lovemaking), before mixing it up with Sanders’ henchman (those clown masks are a nice, bizarre touch...but Franco needed a better stunt coordinator for all those air-whooshing haymakers). And Sanders makes an amusing comic villain; he may be too broad in his comedy, his celebrated ALL ABOUT EVE timing diminished by age and illness, but he’s plugging away, and he still gets laughs just looking slightly peeved or inconvenienced, or when laughing at a Popeye comic book as Rohm is being drowned in his pool (and let’s be honest: the sight of the delectable Elisa Montes, from RETURN OF THE SEVEN, strutting around in her bikini as Sander’s accountant while amusing us with her genuinely bright, funny turn, is alone worth the price of admission).
Anytime we’re at Eaton’s rather striking Femina HQ, THE GIRL FROM RIO switches quite nicely from Bondian parody to BARBARELLA-type sex-fi, with Franco incapable of shooting Eaton’s minions without a bare breast or bottom (or more) peeking through (hello when those goons are rasslin’ Rohm at the airport...). Franco is forever posing his beautiful girls in rigid, fascist lines, all done up in bondage gear and toting machine guns, while they await their instructional classes on how to make themselves irresistible to weak men. It’s all dreamy and weird and silly, with Eaton’s captives, some naked, held drugged in glass booths, and torture inflicted on Wyler through smothering kisses, a boot in the crotch...and what looks to be an old-style dentist’s X-ray machine. If Franco can’t stage a convincing fistfight, or has Eaton torture Reves with a small plastic electric fan (you can put your tongue on one of those things and they won’t cut you), or utterly botches the sorry Bondian battle royale at the finale (when you don’t have money for blanks, just shake those toy machine guns!), we don’t wind up caring, really. Franco is most interested in showcasing, in an oddly innocent-yet-leering way, the female form as dangerous attraction, and he likes to just pause and pause, and let the sensuousness of moviemaking itself, be felt. If he has to fake a lesbian love scene with a Eaton double, he’ll do it to tease and entice us (when Eaton found this out later, it just reinforced her resolve to quit the movie biz for good). Or if he wants the real thing, pointing the camera repeatedly at Eaton’s mathematically-aligned, cruelly beautiful face (her leggy, incredibly sexy seduction of Wyler is enough to give any fan of this criminally underutilized actress the whim-whams. Used right, she could have been way ahead of her times), he does so purely for his — and our — enjoyment. Sure it’s cinematic padding, but it’s padding with genuine fascination and obsession behind it, and in an odd, often indescribable way, it works.
THE MILLION EYES OF SUMURU is presented in a 1080p HD 2.35:1 widescreen transfer that’s pretty crisp and clean, considering the original elements. About the only drawbacks are some soft long shots and some too-hot, contrasty moments. Otherwise, the image fine detail is quite nice, grain structure is moderate (a bit loose and noisy at times), image anomalies on a par with what you’d expect (some scratches here and there, and speckling), and fairly good color. THE GIRL FROM RIO's 1080p HD 1.66:1 widescreen image fine detail is terrific — exceptionally crisp but not crunchy, with pop-y valued color, very tight, clean grain structure, and reasonable image depth. Contrast is excellent. Both movies feature English DTS-HD English mono audio tracks; both are super-clean, with solid re-recording levels and smooth dialogue. English SDH subtitles are available on both films. "Rolling on Rio", a 2004 doc that was featured on the previous BU standard disc of THE GIRL FROM RIO, is a fun look at the movie's production, with Franco, Eaton, and Towers all contributing amused memories of the shoot. Franco rhapsodies about Eaton's looks...and then says he made a mistake casting her because she wasn't beautiful enough. Eaton still has a wicked smile, remembering the soft-core porn tricks Franco pulled, while Towers very briefly asserts that everything was fine on the shoot. Original trailers are included, along with poster and still galleries. (Paul Mavis)
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