aka Souls for Sale ; Evils of Chinatown
Director: Albert Zugsmith
By Roderick Heath
Albert Zugsmith was one of those characters who make cinema history much livelier. Like Samuel Fuller, with whom he shared many artistic traits, he was a former journalist with a political backgroud—his sister was an author of “proletarian” novels in the 1930s—but had also spent time working as a lawyer, during which he represented Jerry Siegel and Joel Schuster in their suits against DC Comics over Superman profits. He evolved into a maverick cinematic entrepreneur, landing a job high in the ranks of Universal Studios. He gave Orson Welles his last Hollywood project, 1958’s Touch of Evil, and produced several films for Douglas Sirk before striking out as an independent filmmaker as studio Hollywood began to decline on the cusp of the 1960s. The films Zugsmith produced or directed are a series of startling switchbacks in style and ambition, including the teen exploitation flick High School Confidential (1958), the camp satire Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), and the failed Disney-imi Dondi (1961).
Zugsmith also tried to cash in on the early tremors of the counterculture and managed to beat Jack Kerouac to copyrighting the phrase “Beat Generation” for his 1959 film of that name. Zugsmith’s best film took its title and essential mood from the infamous Confessions of an English Opium-Eater of English essayist and critic Thomas De Quincey. At the start of the 19th century, De Quincey wrote about his drug-state visions, and became perhaps the first legitimate psychedelic artist. Zugsmith’s film is not an adaptation, but a kind of purple-poetic fever dream spliced with a swashbuckling noir tale, infused with morbid, semi-tragic pseudo-philosophical discursions and a delight in pounding into unexplored territory, all worthy of a high Romantic artist. Filming on an evidently very low budget, rather than trying to hide that fact, Zugsmith made the mixture of thrift-store hype and underground film invention part of his film’s uniquely woozy texture, and created the world’s first cheapjack pulp-surrealist masterpiece.
Confessions of an Opium Eater anticipated not only the trippier excesses of ’60s cinema, but also elements of later action cinema and modern pulp revivalism, including the directly influenced Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and other East-meets-West remixes. It also represents a weird and fascinating islet of virtually experimental cinema in the context of B-movie thrills, rampantly assaulting settled mores of both art and culture in a violently deconstructive fashion. Vincent Price plays Gilbert De Quincey, supposedly a descendant of Thomas and following in his existential footsteps, an adventurer and occasional opium fiend who washes up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1902. In a lengthy prologue, his voiceover helps weave a fantasy texture as a gang of tough-looking men on a beachfront discover a rotting skeleton wrapped in seaweed, one eye gazing out malevolently, whilst out at sea a boatload of captive Asian women are being transported to the shores of America on a huge junk.
The women are hauled out of the hold, and the crewmen herd, batter, wrestle, and hurl the girls into a great cargo net to get them off the ship and onto a waiting schooner before a Coast Guard cutter reaches them. When the schooner’s crew bring them on the beach, the waiting men prove to be rescuers who try to overcome the slavers. One of them, who is revealed later to be crusading newspaper editor George Wah (Richard Loo), engages in a battle with one of the pirates who threatens one of the girls, Lotus (June Kyoto Lu, credited as June Kim). George is knocked down by his opponent, but the pirate is suddenly attacked by a panicked white horse, which kicks him over a cliff. Some of the pirates’ confederates arrive in a car and quell the battle with a blast from a tommy gun. The drag away Lotus from Wah’s crumpled body.
The images of death, the exotic ship emerging from the mystic ocean as reported through De Quincey’s eyes (“I see a junk…”), and the metaphysical image of good easily recognised in the white horse immediately establish a mood of dreamlike strangeness and symbolic fervidness. De Quincey enters the story in downtown San Francisco, mulling over his own aimlessness, as a seagull portentously drops dead at his feet. He has to sneak into Chinatown, which the police have cordoned off because of the threat of tong wars. There he encounters the shadowy factions vying for power in the Chinese community, with Ching Foon (Philip Ahn) seemingly among those trying to continue the crusade of George Wah to end the sexual slavery in Chinatown run by mysterious, ancient kingpin Lin Tang. On the opposing team is ravishing femme fatale Ruby Low (Linda Ho), Lin Tang’s senior madam and operational chief, who runs the labyrinthine demimonde. Breaking into Wah’s offices, he discovers Ching Foon is hiding Lotus in a secret room, but Lin Tang’s tong goons bust their way in and force them to flee via a secret elevator that takes them into the sewers. There, after a valiant effort, De Quincey is knocked out, and Lotus spirited away by the slavers.
Awakening deep in the bowels of the underworld, De Quincey encounters Lo Tsen (Caroline Kido), and the midget Child (Yvonne Moray), two women who were once sold in Lin Tang’s flesh market. Now they’re imprisoned in bamboo cages, being starved to death to rid their husbands of their inconvenient persons after they’ve proven too encumbering or problematic. De Quincey and the women try to escape, but that proves a very tall order. Zugsmith’s mise-en-scène, conjured with cinematographer Joseph Biroc, who did similarly great work for Fuller and Robert Aldrich, is at once solid and stripped-down in a fashion familiar from low-budget cinema of the era. Yet it is replete with swiftly glimpsed, oddly elusive images and stylised environs: riddling secret passages, characters who vanish and return, people who seem to switch sides and back again with swiftly adopted and swapped identities, glimpses of corpses, drug-dream visions, inanimate objects filmed as if they’re alive and menacing. Most clever are the ghostly mechanisms of the crane system that the slave girls’ cages slide about on that sees their captives whipped from room to room, sliding unexpectedly out of shadows like spectral emanations.
The effects are often ropy, from the camera speed effects used to give action more pep throughout, to the mid-film surrealist dream where distorted faces and stock footage commingle to wonderfully tacky effect, yet it’s precisely the film’s bald-faced lack of hype that’s part of its unique style. For example, early in the film, De Quincey follows Ruby Lo out onto the street, only for a banner to drop unexpectedly into the frame, signalling the eruption of a tong battle. The soundtrack is filled with the screams of women and children and the rattle of machine guns, and Ruby Lo dashes into a doorway, only for a sliding panel to drop, stopping De Quincey from following and leaving him outside on the completely deserted streets. Trying to break into Wah’s office, he’s assailed by a suddenly looming vision of a dragon’s face, which proves to be only a menacing kite, which he then cleverly uses to hitch a rope to the roof so he can penetrate the building.
Whilst its fleshy texture is clearly compiled from generations of trash sources, Confessions has a tone quite unlike anything before, save for the strangest works of Louis Feuillade and Fritz Lang, and little since. De Quincey is a strange and uncommon kind of movie hero, constantly thwarted in his attempts to escape and rescue the captive women. An adventurer who’s scoured the world in search of his destiny, beset by an awareness of his own rootless alienation, he’s a fan of the opium pipe, and gains initial introduction to Ruby Lo because he sports the tattoo by which fans of the drug recognise each other. De Quincey’s literal act of infiltrating Chinatown immediately plunges him into a serpentine jumble of motivations and mysteries, as nobody’s quite sure who’s on what side of the coin, and indeed the notion that there is no coin lingers threateningly.
Wah, the liberal hero of Chinatown, so famous that even Lotus had heard of him back in China, is the film’s yardstick of decency and upright morality, and yet he’s believed dead. Everyone else is improvising. The falling bird at the start is definitely the albatross around the neck of the doomed mariner, as he encounters his idol/enemy/lover/angel of death Ruby, who likewise sees in him a personification of something ecstatic and annihilating. Hilariously, at one point when Ruby has De Quincey bound in her apartment, and comes on to him in a lengthy scene where the camera only studies her sensually rapacious features, she kisses him and it seems that they’re about to consummate their forbidden passion. However, they’re both wily survivors, and when De Quincey grabs Ruby’s hair to try to manhandle her, she promptly bashes him unconscious.
The screenplay’s flagrantly weird twists and turns are in accord with screenwriter Robert Hill’s dialogue, a free-styling mix of fortune cookie Orientalisms, philosophy, and hard-boiled noir quips. When De Quincey awakens hanging from a hook in a room filled with exotic costumes and he complains he’s not a side of beef, Ching Foon retorts, “Not sure if you side of beef or a side of man. Look like you man of many sides!” Gilbert De Quincey’s peculiar wandering character and his deep knowledge of Chinese culture mixed with an age of Yankee sarcasm is an interesting prefiguration of a contemporary multicultural ideal, the Indiana Jones type of globetrotting buccaneer who also would cross cultural barriers, and a kind of prototypical hipster in search of experiences beyond not just the ordinary, but perspective-altering, life-changing, perhaps even life-ending. It feels as if Zugsmith was aware that he was making not just a period fantasia, but also a film about the nascent yearnings of the then-contemporary underworlds — the drug culture, the Beat and psychedelic scene, and the gay world, aspects of the general counterculture just about to grow in force from bohemian hideaways.
This aspect is discernible in the importance given to the secret signs by which members recognise each other, the way portals into different realities swing open and slap shut, and how cultural tropes blend in polymorphous fashion or polarise fatally. More than a decade before Robert Towne used the word “Chinatown” to invoke everything unknowable and deceitful in the world, Zugsmith and Hill had already investigated that notion into the ground, for whilst the mystery world of Chinatown is here certainly filled with exotic threat, it’s also a place where the heroes are fighting for its soul and definition. Community is one of the film’s underlying themes, as De Quincey searches for connection with other human beings, a connection he constantly snatches at in trying to make contact with captives through bars and doors, chasing Ruby Lo, Ling Tan, and his own fate like the proverbial white rabbit.
There are hints that Zugsmith’s work with Orson Welles laid seeds that sprout here. The seamy, multitudinous, trash-romantic universe he evokes both resembles The Lady from Shanghai (1946) and Touch of Evil in many places and anticipates Welles’ adaptation of The Trial from the following year in the paranoid atmosphere, the use of sets, lighting, and busy frames with deep-focus photography. Intentionally or not, too, the film’s ideas reach out in accord with both fellow exploit/liberate artists like Russ Meyer (with whom Zugsmith would later work on the failed Fanny Hill ), and Jesus Franco, and overtly arty eccentrics like Kenneth Anger and Jean-Luc Godard. Another comparison that jumps out to me is the same year’s Dr. No, the first James Bond film, which likewise reinvented pulp and serial material in a pop-art fashion, but completely avoided this film’s self-aware, reality-bending appropriation of De Quincey’s alternative reality trippiness, so that the racist fantasies are more or less left intact. You’d have to look to much more recent crossbreeds like The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) to see the mainstream assimilation of Zugsmith’s sensibility here, in almost all characteristics—the blend of elemental action and philosophical enquiry, post-modern genre and cultural blending, dream-or-reality quandaries—but still lacking the vitality of this film’s humanism, strangeness, and eroticism.
Speaking of eroticism, Zugsmith gains some mild grindhouse sex appeal from his material, as in the lengthy sequences towards the end in which Lin Tang’s men make their captive women dance in alluring fashion for their would-be purchasers, but yet also manages at the same time to critique this objectification. Zugsmith in Sex Kittens Go to College had cast Mamie Van Doren as a genius no one takes seriously because of her looks; here, ironies proliferate as the brutality of the kidnapped girls’ slavery is emphasised. In one gloriously camp moment that evokes Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1963), one of the audience of girl-buyers irritably tears off the wig hiding the baldness of one of the dancing girls. The sex appeal is literally pasted on to hide the de-feminising punishment doled out to the would-be escapee. Yet the whole project is orchestrated by Ruby Lo, who dresses up to play the part of Lin Tang, who died years ago, leading to the delightful image at the very end in which she tries to stamp on Gilbert’s fingers as he hangs on for dear life, lifting her masculine dress to reveal stilettoed heels. Ruby dreams of using the accumulated treasure of Lin Tang to muster an army of conquest back in China.
De Quincey’s main helpmate is the perverted image of a courtesan imposed on the midget Child, whose own blackly comic sensibility marks her out as one of cinema’s rarest characters. Completely immune to emotional degradation or intimidation, she giggles over the most sadistic designs and sighs laughingly over her fate, having once been the real Lin Tang’s “baby doll” before he sold her to a lettuce farmer in Salinas: “I pick lettuce long time!” When Lo Tsen cries out to De Quincey from her cage for food, Child mocks her: “She crazy. They fed her last week!” And when De Quincey, trying to horsetrade with Child, offers her “her life,” she retorts, “No good. What else you got?” In a particularly nightmarish moment, Gilbert is shown the body of a girl who’s been drowned in a tank with a rock tethered to her neck. The undercurrent of honest brutality in the film helps makes the urgency of Gilbert’s mission more than theoretical. The film’s striking and memorable scene comes halfway through, when, having been separated from the women in escaping from Lin Tang’s dungeons, Gilbert hides out in an opium den to which he finds a secret door in a toilet cubical. After smoking a pipe and going into a delirious dream in which severed hands crawl around and Ruby’s face merges with that of a grinning alligator, De Quincey wakes up as enemy goons assault him.
Replicating the hero’s dazed, drugged-up state, Zugsmith shoots the next five minutes of the film in woozy slow motion, at first without any sound. De Quincey makes an escape by leaping from bunk to bunk in the opium den, knocking over his assailants, and then hurling himself out a window, only to find he’s on a high floor, and finishes up sliding down a roof to hang desperately from a gutter. Zugsmith draws out the quickest motions to unbearable lengths (aided by composer Albert Glasser’s eerily droning Theremin music), as Gilbert wavers on the edge of a great drop, unable to got back or forward, as a hatchet-clutching henchman leaps after him from one balcony, and another with a gun lines up a shot from a distance away. De Quincey makes a leap through an awning onto an adjoining balcony and climbs through a window, only to encounter a smiling, yet creepy butcher who wields a huge cleaver to cut the head of a pig’s carcass in half.
Gilbert runs on through the building, passing through a disarmingly quiet tea parlour and then hearing someone shouting “help!” and following the sound. The pleading voice proves to be a squawking cockatoo, which is scared off its perch as bullets smack into the wall behind it, and Gilbert is chased again by goons, driving him to take a fall off a balcony where, instead of falling normally to earth, he’s transmogrified into a spinning cut-out. When he awakens next, he gets a dish of water from Ruby right in the face (the camera), ending the dreamy state with a shock. It’s one of the most original and unique action scenes I’ve ever seen, and, in its way, as formally radical as anything being done in the era’s art cinema. Confessions vibrates with its anarchic assault on many different surface realities within its structure, building to the dizzying finale in which it is revealed that George Wah is still alive. He poses as an elderly girl-buyer and then tries to pass off plaster casts for bushels of opium in payment for buying Lotus.
Gilbert and Wah punch their way out, back to back, like Ladd and Heflin in Shane (1953), as George congratulates De Quincey: “You wreck the joint as fast as ever!” The rush of action here is surprising, as both Lo Tsen and Child die battling their captor—Lo Tsen takes a fall with one from a high stairwell, and Child gets a knife in the back, beseeching De Quincey through the portal of a sewer grate to say hello to her ancestors—and a wounded De Quincey and Ruby are swept away in the sewer waters. De Quincey’s final voiceover, as purple as ever, is almost exultant, declaring “all passion spent, all evil behind us…as once again I put out to sea, were these the widening waters of death, or the gates of paradise?” Like the film as a whole, these last moments are both ludicrous, yet rare in their depth of feeling.