Beta: Corrupt Ones, The / Peking Medallion, The / Die Hölle von Macao (1967)

August 17, 2014 | By


CorruptOnes_BetaFilm: Good

Transfer:  Weak

Extras: n/a

Label: Embassy Home Entertainment

Region: NTSC

Released:  1985

Genre:  Action

Synopsis: A crusading photographer in possession of an ancient Chinese medal is chased by a widow, the mafia, and thugs for a treasure hidden within a forgotten underground tomb.

Special Features:  n/a




This crazy cocktail of Asian exotica, sadism, and search for ancient treasure may have been a production targeted at international markets using an international cast of TV and feature film stars, but this German-French-Italian co-production is still a low budget effort trying very hard to transcend the limits of its budget.

In this case, some of the earnest efforts pay off, because director James Hill (A Study in TerrorBorn Free) was aided by cinematographer Heinz Pehlke and editor Alfred Srp (SissiJulie Darling, Killing Cars), so certainly in its original theatrical form – 2.35:1 Techniscope – The Corrupt Ones must have been a fast-moving upper-B level movie, but the only venue to catch the film for years (which is still apparently the case) was in terrible full-frame transfers via Embassy Home Entertainment on Betamax and VHS tapes.

Director Hill was a hired gun, but many of the off-camera creatives had various levels of experience in the German film industry, and some of their prior collaborations undoubtedly shaped the finale – but more on that later.

In its simplest form, Corrupt begins with a kind of James Bondian Cold War hook in which a tabloid-investigative reporter, Cliff Wilder (Robert Stack), barely manages to escape from Red China with photos of a forced labour camp with the aide of Italian treasure hunter, Mancini (Maurizio Arena).

When the pair reach Macao, Mancini spots local gang operatives, and hangs around Cliff long enough to give him a gold medallion before he’s snatched by the Macao mafia and tortured for information.

When Cliff realizes he possesses an object of note (and possible payday of $10 million), he must choose which ally is the most noble, if not the safest: Manicni’s wife Lili (Elke Sommer, looking ravishing in meticulous outfits and hairdos), local police chief Pinto (scene-stealing German actor Werner Peters), thug Jay Brandon (Christian Marquand), or bella Mafiosi Tina (Nancy Kwan, quite good being discretely menacing).

Before the race to reach the treasure kicks in, however, Cliff wanders into a brothel and has to fend off offers from Mme. Vulcano (Marisa Merlini) in what’s a strangely yet deliberately funny scene. When he does confront Tina, it’s at her villa, where she shows off her torture skills on a minion with dripping acid after the boob broiled Mancini with a blowtorch before asking any questions.

Producer Artur Brauner’s prolific film background includes sexploitation fodder and Fritz Lang’s late-era Mabuse films, so fans of Lang will get a sense of déjà vu when the group of rivals shift alliances after theyretrapped in the hidden tomb of a Chinese noble close to the Red Chinese border.

The stark torture scenes coupled with unusually elaborate tomb sets are likely borrowed ideas from Brauner’s early Lang collaborations – Tiger of Eschnapur and Indian Tomb (both 1959), Lang’s Indian diptych – which similarly used torture (lions, water, starvation & abandonment), a cultish ruling class, and an elaborate trek through underground passages and caverns. Although these elements have been downscaled to suit the film’s budget, they’re still quite affecting, due in large part to the sharp editing and surprisingly solid fight choreography.

Stack is typically wooden and his limitations as a dramatic / romantic lead are more evident than in his prior ‘Asian’ thriller, Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), where he played an agent masquerading as an arrogant American ass to infiltrate an American crime syndicate in Tokyo. He’s still okay as reluctant hero Cliff, but he’s neither no better nor worse than his co-stars who have little opportunity to transcend their limited roles, and the dialogue concocted by a mish-mash of non-writers and genre veterans like Brian Clemens (The AvengersCaptain Kronos – Vampire Hunter).

The sole exceptions among the cast are Peters as the amoral and opportunistic police chief (an unsubtle riff on Claude Rains’ Captain Renault in Casablanca), and Kwan, playing Tina as sexy, astute, organized, and pseudo-nationalistic (although she clearly uses safeguarding national treasures from greedy Western paws as an excuse to steal for her).

Georges Garvarentz’ score is adequate – some unusual instrumental effects add menace to the film’s torture scenes – but it is noteworthy for the heavy use of the Ondes Martenot (the woo-woo electronic sounds similarly used by Richard Rodney Bennett in the tongue-in-cheek spy film Billion Dollar Brain), and a title track with banal lyrics sung by Dusty Springfield, fresh from her hit “The Look of Love” in Casino Royal that same year.

Whereas Sommer would ease into horror and international productions, the film didn’t really transform Stack into a film star. His last crack – Story of a Woman with James Farentino and Bibi Andersson in 1970 for Italian director Leonardo Bercovici apparently wasn’t enough, pushing Stack back into the stable environment of network TV series and TV movies.

Kwan’s career was neither aided nor damaged by the film, but it is striking that only three years earlier she’d earned second billing in the airline disaster drama Fate is the Hunter (1964) with co-star Glenn Ford. What followed in the coming years were small roles in productions outside of the studios’ realm.

The Corrupt Ones may well one day materialize as a Warner Archive release, since Warner Bros. handled the film’s original theatrical distribution in the U.S. and the U.K. It is odd, however, that Germany’s Constantine Film never released the film in a proper widescreen DVD.

James Hill would direct several genre films and revisit the hallowed ground of Born Free with the 1969 ‘true life sequel’ The Lions are Free – before ending his career with the TV series Worzel Gummidge (1979-1981), Worzel Gummidge Down Under (1987-1989), and Alaska Kid (1993).

To North American audiences, Christian Marquand is perhaps best-known for small roles in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Candy (1968), Apocalypse Now: Redux (1979), and A Choice of Arms / Le choix des Arms (1981).



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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