Alex March’s Dubious ‘Mastermind’

What amazes me about Charlie Chan-spoof Mastermind isn't that such a thing exists but that such a thing exists without my having heard of it.

Alex March
Kino Lorber
15 May 2015

Supposedly a parody of the Charlie Chan movies, Mastermind is a slapstick spoof in which Zero Mostel plays a Japanese police inspector who investigates crimes involving a toy company’s prototype for a pint-sized android that knows karate. People are frozen by deadly darts, and there’s a nightclub and a bath-house and a big chase before everyone goes home. What amazes me about this movie isn’t that such a thing exists but that such a thing exists without my having heard of it. I’ll explain my befuddlement.

According to various sources, including Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, this movie was barely released in 1976 after having sat on the shelf since 1969. The year 1976 explains why the crude, cut-rate poster art, as reproduced on the Blu-ray cover, exclaims “Smarter than the Pink Panther!” and “Mightier than the Mighty Kong!” The Pink Panther series was in full revival, and the King Kong remake was another release that year. I presume the reference doubles as a pun on Hong Kong for a vaguely Asian joke. Chan was Chinese Hawaiian, but nobody seems to have been thinking about it too coherently.

What I’m getting at is that in 1976, this kind of knockabout offering would have been up my alley, for I was determined to see every comedy I could feast my orbs upon. Besides the aforementioned Pink Panther rally, Mel Brooks was king with multiple crudely humored spoofs, and Neil Simon was getting into the act with Murder By Death (1976 again) in which Peter Sellers of the Panther films played Chan-parody Sidney Wang. Sellers also starred in the spy spoof Undercovers Hero (1974) and The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), the latter shortly before Peter Ustinov essayed Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981).

Other slapstick actions of this era, as they come rushing back to me, would be The Black Bird (1975), Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976 yet again!), Silver Streak (ditto), The Big Bus (again ditto), Fun With Dick and Jane (1977), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe (1978), Foul Play (1978), Movie Movie (1978), The Villain (1979) and Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (1981). It’s a mixed bag to say the least. I couldn’t always see these movies at the time, being many years from driving or shaving, but you’d better believe I knew about them. So the fact that Mastermind is a blank in my memory bank indicates that it never played at a theatre near me nor was even advertised on TV.

(Unlikely as it may seem, youngsters, there was a time when all major motion pictures and even the minor ones were supported by TV commercials that blanketed the airwaves the week before the film opened. The TV trailer often ended with a hasty list of local theatres showing the proffered item. This practice evaporated, as nearly as I can recall, sometime around the invention of HBO and Showtime.)

I seem to have gotten away from the movie at hand, and if you ever sit through it, you’ll understand the impulse. I must acknowledge the species of schizo-affective nostalgia it induces for a movie I’ve never heard of but that resembles so many others, for I know that my pre-discerning self would have been amused by much of its deliberately childish, brightly colored antics. With equal honesty, I must testify that nothing in it makes me laugh now, yet I stare at the thing in semi-bewildered fascination.

As Inspector Hoku Ichihara, Mostel makes no special attempt to sound Japanese, or Asian or “Oriental” or anything except Mostel, beyond adopting the Chan style of speaking without pronouns or articles — a quirk singled out for mockery in Murder By Death. We should be grateful for this, or there might have been gags about switching “R” and “L” in words. We’re less grateful that he has no consistent characterization, as sometimes he’s supposed to be brilliantly analytical and other times he’s a bumbler.

Now and then he imagines himself a samurai in scenes that spoof the miraculous swordfighters of many other films, as though that’s the kind of movie he’d rather be starring in and perhaps we’d rather be watching. He’s at his lowest ebb when stalking and harassing a nightclub owner he idolizes and obsesses over, a swinging modern chick played by a very distinguished Japanese actress, Keiko Kishi. Among other roles, she played the heroine of Snow Country (1957), the ghostly Snow Woman in Kwaidan (1965) and the eldest of The Makioka Sisters (1983). Hollywood-watchers may recall her from The Yakuza (1974).

There’s little point in discussing the ramshackle plot or the supporting characters played by Gawn Grainger (a British assistant), Frankie Sakai (a suicidal guard who’s a kind of random chaos inducer not unlike the Pink Panther’s Cato), Sorrell Booke (toy executive and ex-Nazi), Herbert Berghof (inventor and ex-Nazi), or Jules Munshin and Phil Leeds (Israeli agents eavesdropping on everything with electronic “bugs”, which feels slightly avant for 1969 but fits right in with 1976).

Two figures, however, are worth noting. The android is played by diminutive Felix Silla, best known as Cousin Itt on The Addams Family and Twiki the robot on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. He can also be seen in the above-mentioned The Black Bird, dressed up like Hitler. Mastermind is among his few roles with uncovered face, although he’s heavily made up like a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy.

Tossed into the plot almost as an afterthought is the lone American character, a CIA agent — no, that’s “CSS Agent” — called Jabez Link and played by Bradford Dillman. It may not be a consciously political statement that his character comes closer than anyone to outright villainy, but such a throwaway detail is at least unwittingly revealing of its era. Also, he spends the whole bath-house sequence dressed only in a towel, so there’s that.

What are the film’s best aspects? It’s shot on location in Kyoto for authentic production value, so Mostel is surrounded by actual Japanese actors and extras. It’s colorfully designed, occasionally even mod or groovy, so at least moderately pleasing to the eye. As for the ear, Fred Karlin’s score repetitiously evokes that jaunty, bouncy, jolly style (with Japanese touches) that goes with flat-out slapstick movies of the era and which really nobody composes anymore.

The most amazing thing about Maltin’s review, if we don’t count the three-star rating, is a stated running time of 131 minutes. That book is usually accurate about such details, but there’s no reality in which that would have been tolerated. The movie runs under 90 minutes, and nothing’s obviously missing — besides wit.

Research reveals that the behind-the-scenes story of this movie may be more interesting than what’s on screen. This film seems to have been a work-for-hire credit for Alex March, a TV director who didn’t specialize in comedy and demonstrates why, but the project involves a very interesting name who did specialize in comedy: William Peter Blatty.

Today, Blatty is famous for his novel and screenplay of The Exorcist, whose success occupied much of his attention in the ’70s and ’80s and got him labeled a horror specialist. Prior to that, he wrote humorous books and screenplays, including several collaborations with Blake Edwards — most significantly A Shot in the Dark (1965), the second Pink Panther movie and a direct inspiration here, both for the bumbling inspector and for Blatty’s invention of Cato (played by Burt Kwouk) in that film. Cato was already something of a parody of the Green Hornet’s valet Kato, most famously played by Bruce Lee in the 1966-67 TV series.

Blatty’s script for the exclamatory John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! (1965), based on his novel, found humor in the U-2 incident involving pilot Francis Gary Powers. Instead of landing in the Soviet Union, Blatty’s hero landed in a fictional Arab country run by Peter Ustinov. The title can be perceived as a weird inversion of the phrase “Yankee Go Home”, popular in punchlines of the era.

The same year as Mastermind, Blatty scripted a slightly less obscure Zero Mostel comedy, The Great Bank Robbery, which includes international factions in a Texas town. Both films were produced by Malcolm Stuart. Blatty objected so strongly to the rewriting of Mastermind that he signed it with the pseudonym “Terence Clyne”, nor can we fault his judgment.

In another irony, that rewriter was Ian McLellan Hunter, who also used a pseudonym: “Samuel B. West”. Hunter acted as a “beard” during the blacklist era and picked up an Oscar for Roman Holiday (1953) that really belonged to Dalton Trumbo. And that reminds us of yet another ironical twist, ladies and gentlemen, for 1976 was also the year Mostel gave a flat-out great performance in Martin Ritt’s The Front, probably the best film ever made about blacklisted writers and their beards.

Wikipedia’s entry on Mastermind claims Blatty’s original screenplay was published in 2013 as Five Lost Screenplays from Lonely Road Books. Further research reveals that, while it’s true that such an undertaking was solicited in 2013, it still hasn’t surfaced, yet it’s officially sold out because of being printed on a kind of subscription basis.

Surely it will be worthwhile for some scholar to compare the original screenplay with the finished result, and perhaps to search for geopolitical similarities to the satirical outlook in John Goldfarb or Blake Edwards’ Blatty-scripted What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966). Alas, it will have to be someone else, as we have only so much time, money, and masochism, with only the last in anything like lavish supply.

The entirely unexpected and unlooked-for Blu-ray of this virtually lost item offers no extras. No matter, we must suppose a few more curious viewers will be able to see it now, and we wish them joy.

RATING 4 / 10