[2 November 2012]
Despite the phrase “Thomas De Quincey’s classic” above the title of this item, the “story” shares nothing in common with it aside from the point that our hero, supposedly a descendant of De Quincey in early 20th Century San Francisco, partakes of opium. After a big donnybrook on a beach between some Chinese slave girls and sailors, De Quincey (Vincent Price, who also indulges in Poe-like narration that never really clarifies matters) wanders through an Old-West set dressed up with Chinese characters to impersonate Chinatown. He’s been called by an old friend to help bust up the slave trade. He does this first by engaging in mysterioso conversations in which everyone quotes Confucian cookies. Then he spends the whole film tumbling through underground caves and secret passages, getting in and out of cages and having many fights.
Eugene Lourie’s art direction and Joseph Biroc’s camera are the stars here, as every five or ten minutes, some arresting image or twist is presented out of this morass. The stylistic highpoint is a slow-motion setpiece (affected by the opium pipe) alternately scored by total silence or by Albert Glasser’s weird music, which sounds like bongos and theremin. That sequence opens with a beautiful tracking shot that follows a virtually airborne Price bounding out of the den; very shortly, he’ll be flying through the air, or at least falling. By the end of the movie, you can only throw up your hands and call it existential. At the very least, it’s what happens when nascent avant-garde impulses are harnessed to the call of exploitation, and as such worth watching at least once.