Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Harry Alan Towers: A life of flickering shadowlike


From Charlton Heston's autobiography, In The Arena:
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The worst film I ever made... (was) The Call of the Wild. How can you possibly screw up that story? You may well ask... The root of our troubles was the producer, a sort of rogue Brit who flickered shadowlike in and out of the country to avoid his various creditors... What we finally ended up with was a joint British/American/Norwegian/German/French/Italian/Spanish co-production... There are many good actors in all these countries whose English is perfectly competent. Our producer did not hire them.
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Chuck never names his rogue Brit, but to more than one generation of off-centre film fans there is only one name that fits the bill.
And though he remained an indefinite quantity to the filmgoing public at large, Harry Alan Towers, who died on July 31st at the age of 88, was also instantly familiar to critics and industry insiders as an exceptionally colourful character of whom, as Halliwell put it, "neither subtlety nor competence should be expected."
He was a walking film machine, seemingly everywhere at the same time, making movies and making deals; his directors often discovering mid-shoot that he is hundreds of miles away, overseeing (or not, as the case may be) two, three, four films at once. Sometimes he left countries for other reasons: because he had to, and quickly. Charged in the sixties with running a call-girl ring, supplying high class girls to UN diplomats, his name has been linked to a number of scandals, including the Profumo affair and the 1975 remake of And Then There Were None.
Ironically, the news of his death came in just after I'd had a bit of a dig at Harry in my previous post, where I blamed him for the fact that El Conde Dracula (1970) was not the masterpiece is so easily could have been. True enough, but international oddball cinema was a better place last week, with him in it, than it is today, with him gone.
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Born in 1920, Towers was a child actor, radio writer and ITV producer before graduating to movies in the early sixties. As well as producing, he frequently wrote screenplays under the pseudonym Peter Welbeck, often on the plane on the way to the location with the cast and crew ready to go. The sheer vastness of his output prevents any clear assessment of where his interests lay; the frequency with which he returned to certain subjects reflecting more their saleability and/or public domain status than love of the material.
But he certainly seemed to have a fondness for And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie's celebrated murder mystery set on an isolated Devon island. His first version, Ten Little Indians (1966) featured Shirley Eaton and Fabian in the cast, and switched the location to a Swiss mountain chateau; his second (1975) took a sleepwalking Herbert Lom and Richard Attenborough to the Iranian desert; his third and final (1989)tried a jungle safari setting and starred Lom again and Sylvester Stallone's brother Frank. Those who have seen this version assure us it is the worst yet, though God knows the 1975 one takes some beating. The 1966 one, despite a whodunnit break towards the end and a ghastly score, is by far the most watchable, though it has nothing on Rene Clair's masterly 1945 version, from which it unofficially borrows a couple of original plot deviations and character names.
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The same feeling of inspiration running dry permeates his Fu Manchu films, which began in high style in 1965 with unquestionably his best screenplay, and probably his best film, The Face of Fu Manchu. For Towers, this was high class indeed, virtually indistinguishable from a sixties Hammer film, and frequently mistaken for one, with Christopher Lee as Fu and Tsai Chin as his sadistic nymphomaniac daughter Lin Tang. Pitted against them is Scotland Yard's most experienced Sherlock Holmes rip-off Nayland Smith, played by Nigel Green in the first film, Douglas Wilmer in the second and third and Richard Greene in the fourth and fifth. (Wilmer's recent autobiography dismisses the films as "preposterous twaddle" and informs us that during production Lee carried his spare change around in a sock.)
The standard dropped even by the time of the second film, as Lee recalls in his autobiography:
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Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) was tosh, in which an extravagant publicity stunt almost sank the picture. At the instigation of producer Harry Alan Towers, who took an enthusiastic part... I toured European countries choosing from each the winner of a national beauty competition whose prize was a part in the film. They tittuped and titted about the set, draped themselves about pillars in Fu Manchu's great stone den, and between takes some draped themselves about members of the unit... But they could not show themselves off to best advantage because they were not members of Equity and therefore they had not a line to speak between the whole dozen.
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When Wilmer left the series (after 1967's Vengeance of Fu Manchu), Towers seems to have lost interest altogether, handing the final two to director Jesus Franco, summed up by Towers himself as "a terribly nice man, but he shouldn't have been allowed to direct traffic."
Castle of Fu Manchu in '68 was a Spanish/Italian/West German co-production shot in Turkey, beginning with Fu freezing the Atlantic and wrecking an ocean liner via spliced-in clips from the British Titanic film A Night to Remember, tinted a spectral blue in a game if unsuccessful attempt to disguise the fact that they are in black and white and the rest of the film is in colour. Then came Blood of Fu Manchu (1969), shot in Brazil and Spain, and a chaotic, near-indecipherable mess: part horror, part James Bond, part spaghetti western, featuring female assassins with poisonous kisses and a superfluous last-minute subplot with Shirley Eaton in a leather cap as 'The Black Widow'. Towers had scored a huge critical and commercial hit with The Face of Fu Manchu, oversaw a superb production with impeccable period detail and earned the praise of original author Sax Rohmer's widow. Then he just seemed to give up on it.
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I discussed El Conde Dracula in my previous post: another Lee-Towers-Franco collaboration, and a generally pleasing one, if one marked more by the production values of Blood of Fu Manchu than Face. It was another example of Towers not going the extra half mile and letting a project of enormous potential fall by the way.
Lee seemed to place unerring trust in Towers and Franco, however, no matter how often he was let down by them.
Legendary is his participation in Eugenie: The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969), one of a couple of Towers-Franco movies to draw inspiration from the puerile writings of the Marquis de Sade. It, too, is among Franco's better works, with that distinctive Euro-sexploitation atmosphere for which he is best known operating at pretty much full power.
Lee plays Dolmance, the chief and most active libertine in the book, but here more of a kind of master-of-ceremonies, standing by in Lee's own velvet Sherlock Holmes jacket and providing a robotic running commentary of Sadean aphorisms and observations.
A last minute replacement for an indisposed George Sanders, he must have known the nature of the original work, but insists in his autobiography that all the dirty stuff was either shot elsewhere and edited in later or in some cases going on literally behind his back:
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Everybody I could see kept their clothes on. There was nothing a boy scout could have quivered at. Little did I know that the woman on the altar behind me was naked, and that as soon as 'Cut' was called, drapery was swirled over her. Little did I know that the same scenes were re-shot when I was back in London, and the actors then peeled. Little did I know of the cross-cutting from me to scenes of debauch that would take place. I first knew of it when I heard that despite being only a guest star my name figured at the very top of the credits on a cinema in Soho frequented by a phalanx of men in raincoats. I was peeved. I told the producer so. He said all the big names were doing much more. It was true. That was not, strictly speaking, relevant to my complaint.
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A De Sade film fit for boy scouts? You can just see the queues forming outside the cinema...
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De Sade was a passion of Franco's but for Towers merely good value for money: a name that sells in the public domain. Accordingly, he did a lot of pseudo-literary adaptation, spiced up wherever possible with decadent trimmings. Massimo Dallarmo's Dorian Gray (1970) had no feeling whatever for Wilde's delicately subversive morality tale and cast Helmut Berger, a blonde German in a tweed hat, as his quintessence of male beauty. Treasure Island, starring and co-written by Orson Welles, was begun by Franco in 1964 and finished by John Hough in 1972, by which time Welles's Long John Silver could only be filmed from the waist up because he was too fat to bend his leg at the knee. Biographer Charles Higham calls it "Welles's worst performance on screen."
Towers mounted a relatively high-profile remake of The Phantom of the Opera in 1988 with Robert Englund in the lead, here no misunderstood and sensitive artist but a belligerent Faust with a penchant for mutilation and rotting skin that has to be stitched in place.
For Night Terrors (1993) directed by a slumming Tobe Hooper, Englund got to play the Marquis de Sade in flashbacks and a descendant in the main narrative, sinister ringmaster of a Sadean cult in modern-day Egypt. The two plot threads never come together, the latter ending with heroine Zoe Trilling, a contemporary Eugenie, suspended in chains in her lingerie being menaced by Englund with some sort of pneumatic retractable spike thing, the former with De Sade telling a priest at his death bed to "take your priestcraft and your palfrey and kiss my ass."
.The modern Towers project with the strongest whiff of nostalgia was The Mummy Lives (1993). This little beauty began its days as an Anthony Perkins vehicle, with Ken Russell down to direct. By the time it appeared Russell had been replaced by prolific hack Gerry O'Hara; and Perkins, sadly deceased, by Tony Curtis! The result was one of the most endearing monstrosities of the decade and already a cult favourite, filled with the kind of buffoonery you may have despaired of ever seeing in a horror film again:
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Perkins did work for Towers, however, in Edge of Sanity (1989), a cross-breeding (neither the first nor last) of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde with Jack the Ripper, heavily informed by the look and manner of Russell's Crimes of Passion. Perkins plays Jekyll and Hyde, Budapest plays London; David Lodge and Glynis Barber are in it; there's a Roman Catholic-themed brothel with sexy nuns, and characters wear nylon lingerie and use one pound coins (the latter a deliberate anachronism, the MFB suggested touchingly). "Oh my God," says Hyde before slaughtering one of several victims, "this is going to be so horrible!"
Whether director Gerard Kikoine was shooting in sequence and Towers stopped sending the cheques I don't know, but this remains the only version of the story to end with Jekyll unapprehended and his secret undiscovered. It's abrupt and oddly effective. The police come round to question him but get nowhere, and the film ends with a shot of them trudging dejectedly away and Perkins watching malevolently through a chink in his net curtains.
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The nineties also saw him put his name to a series of Edgar Allan Poe movies which, in long-standing cinema tradition, basically just bagged the titles of the stories and went hog wild making up new plots. One of them, Edgar Allen Poe's Buried Alive (1991) didn't even use a real title, and spelled Poe's name wrongly. (It is a riot, however, set in a home for wayward girls, with John Carradine getting mere seconds of screen time in his final role, Robert Vaughan leaving teeth-marks in the scenery as the surprise villain who keeps his face concealed even in front of his victims until the time comes to reveal the secret to the audience, Donald Pleaseance as a prowling red-herring in a disconcerting toupee, and a character getting killed with an egg-whisk. It's the essence of Poe, pretty much.)
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These are some of my favourite Harry Alan Towers moments; no doubt you have your own. Or maybe you don't. Maybe you thought that all his films were tripe. But it would still have been obvious that, as the last professionally active survivor of the golden age of British exploitation, cinema will be the poorer without him.
More has ended here than the certain likelihood of anyone ever producing a movie quite like The Mummy Lives ever again. An era has ended here.

5 comments:

Radiation Cinema! said...

Matthew: Knowing the kinds of films I love, you knew I was going to love this post! My favorite era of film making is glutted with glorious movie hawkers like this, but somehow I always imagined it was largely an American type. This Englishman (who you are bringing to my attention) appears to take a back seat to no one in the "Shlockmeister" category! I love all the big stars writing about him, all scrambling to put distance between themselves and Mr. Towers.

I am sorry I am only learning of him now, just in time to miss him.

Don’t you ever weary of bringing fascinating film characters into the light? I hope not! – Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Ha ha! It is indeed largely an American type, which is why the British never quite knew what to make of Towers!
Thanks as always for dropping by - Matthew

RoseOfTransylvania said...

1. I agree with Towers about Franco, that he should not be allowed to direct traffic! (Or write scripts - shudder!) He´s Lars Von Trier of horror!
2. Edge of Sanity: OK, mixing Jekyll and Hyde with Ripper is honest fiction (unlike lot of Ripperology), there was effective and oddly touching subplot of Glynis Barber as angelic wife searching truth about her husband ... Buut prostitutes had 1980´s Madonna look - completed with MINISKIRTS IN VICTORIAN STREETS!
3. I liked Eugenie-in-chains´s negligee!

RoseOfTransylvania said...

Oh and I forgot - Phantom of the opera had really qite lovely Gothic look and atmosphere!

Hbrix said...

Thanks for this fascinating look into Harry Alan Towers life and, er, work. Watched "Face Of Fu Manchu" for the first time last night and thought it was great, if a bit threadbare production-wise. IMDB and others have the film being shot in Dublin, of all places, doubling for both Hong Kong and London (seemingly with the same stone walls in the background of both). Crazy.