France Nuyen, Part 1: Satan Never Sleeps (1962) + Man in the Middle (1964)

March 8, 2019 | By

William Holden + Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong (1961).

Back in 2012, I reviewed To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey (2012), a documentary on actress / dancer Nancy Kwan, a gifted talent whom Hollywood embraced after she shot to stardom in Paramount’s The World of Suzie Wong (1960) with William Holden, but by 1964 was finding scant supporting roles because the still-firm studio system and its old guard didn’t know what else to do with an Asian actress, hence a string of lesser works which paled under her debut, and the classic musical Flower Drum Song (1961).

The role of Suzie Wong was originated on Broadway by France Nuyen, another talented actress whose career within the studio system was less meteoric, but went through similar twists & turns as main studio Fox tested her skills in South Pacific (1958), In Love and War (1958), and Satan Never Sleeps (1962) – the latter a clever pairing with Holden, perhaps a discrete ploy by the studio to channel to audiences ‘If you liked Nancy Kwan, here’s another teaming you’ll love!’


William Holden + France Nuyen in Satan Never Sleeps (1962).


Satan was also derived from an original script by Pulitzer-winning author Pearl S. Buck, and directed by Leo McCarey, a veteran writer-producer-director whose career was boosted by the much-loved weepy An Affair to Remember (1957). As I itemize in my review, Satan is a weird little film, largely because of its strange tonal shifts, and Nuyen being cast as a likely teenage waif, lovesick for Holden, a bad boy priest who’s doing his best to avoid straying into highly improper waters, smack in the middle of 1949 Communist China.

Nuyen’s good, but her characterization feels a little forced, pushing ingénue, cute, and impish glee on audiences, and it feels no less odd then watching 1970s and 1980s teen dramas and shockers with twentysomething actors playing 16-18 year olds. Nuyen’s character does undergo a series of shocks which somewhat foist a bit of maturity, but she’s still a secondary character to ongoing battle of wits between two priests (Holden, and longtime Fox player Clifton Webb in his final film) and the despotic Commie commander (underrated Robert Lee).

The actors transcend the material, but Satan offers a stark contrast to Man in the Middle (1964), Fox’s next attempt to ‘build’ Nuyen into a possible romantic-dramatic actress, but similar to Kwan, by 1964, even secondary roles were becoming scare. Hollywood-based Nuyen took advantage of the wealth of work in TV, and perhaps because of the strong, independent aura that’s present in her performances, she was cast in sometimes memorable roles.

France Nuyen as the fiesty Elaan of Troyius (1968).

If her feature films, including the B-grade Dimension 5 (1966) with former Star Trek TV pilot lead and ex-Fox contract player Jeffrey Hunter (No Down Payment, King of Kings), aren’t familiar, there is “Elaan,” that 1968 Star Trek episode in which a spoiled warrior queen butts heads with imposed diplomatic protector Captain Kirk – William Shatner, her co-star from Broadway’s Suzie Wong.

Nuyen worked steadily in TV – like Kwan, she also appeared in episodes of Hawaii Five-O, Kung Fu, Fantasy Island, and Trapper John M.D. – plus the occasional film role, but you could argue that even with Elaan in her C.V., Hollywood didn’t know what to do with a strong-willed female persona; even Satan co-star Robert Lee didn’t break into larger roles, although he too fared better in British and U.S. TV (and appeared in several episodes of, what else, Hawaii Five-O).

France Nuyen in Man in the Middle (1962).

I paired Man in the Middle, a taut courtroom drama with Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard, and co-scripted by Keith Waterhouse (released on DVD by Fox), with Satan Never Sleeps (new on Blu from Twilight Time) because they offer another glimpse of a studio during the waning years of its once-entrenched system almost losing interest in building careers of starlets, especially their ‘exotic’ talent.

Satan gave Nuyen a bigger role, but it’s a clichéd Asian waif which feels like a quaint fantasy; Middle has Nuyen playing a smart nurse well aware of the selfish maneuvering within the hospital, and the clashing of cultures and frictions between British and American soldiers based in India during WWII.

The attitudinal contrast between the rival allies is very discrete: the Brits are tired and indifferent to the Indians, exhausted by the heat, and would rather retire to a quadrant of the empire less taxing on the respiratory system, whereas the Americans know they’re time in theatre is limited to the combat – once the peace deal is signed, they’ll pull out, free from the tension between a corporate colonial power and fed up locals.

Nuyen’s nurse is stoic, but not indifferent, and her moral push helps Mitchum’s JAG become more determined in defending his client to the nth degree instead of a plausible performance to please generals and cocktail diplomats.

Man in the Middle should be on Blu – the DVD’s got a flawed source print, and it’s cast is uniformly excellent – whereas Twilight Time’s Blu of Satan Never Sleeps presents McCarey’s creatively flawed swan song in its best possible version, giving it another chance, if not a better magnifying glass to scrutinize Hollywood’s long history of severe typecasting of culturally diverse actors and actresses.

Coming next: Danger in Lighthouses! as dramatized in The Vanishing (2018), based on the Flannen Isle Mystery, and from the archives, Michael Powell’s The Phantom Light (1935), a murder investigation.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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