Friday, 19 July 2013

Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962)

Adapting Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an Opium Eater for the screen would have presented considerable challenges, to say the least. Perhaps wisely the makers of the 1962 film Confessions of an Opium Eater made no attempt to do so. What they did instead was to make a movie very loosely inspired by De Quincey’s classic. It really has very little to do with De Quincey’s book although it does also involve opium. The results are bizarre but fascinating.

A hundred years after the publication of the famous book Gilbert De Quincey (Vincent Price), a descendant of Thomas De Quincey, arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He has lived a life of adventure in China and other parts of the East but he is still searching. What he’s searching for he has no idea. What he finds is the strangest adventure of his life.

A tong war has broken out. At issue is the auction of girls for wives. The girls are kidnapped in China and then sent to San Francisco where they are destined to be married to the highest bidder. A Chinese-American journalist, George Wah, has been campaigning against the auctions and has been killed for his troubles. Gilbert De Quincey bears a tattoo identifying him as belonging to the tong responsible for the auctions but whether his loyalties lie with the tong is a matter of some doubt, not least to Gilbert De Quincey.

Whatever his loyalties De Quincey does not like the idea of the auctions. He finds himself becoming more deeply embroiled than he intended in the conflict over the auctions. After meeting the beautiful, enigmatic and quite possibly evil Ruby Low (Linda Ho) who appears to be the effective leader of the tong he decides to investigate the activities of the late George Wah. He breaks into George Wah’s office by means of a kite (yes, really). He finds an unfortunate Chinese girl destined for the auction that night and then he and the girl are forced to take refuge in a secret compartment, a secret compartment that leads to a hidden elevator that leads in turn into the city’s sewers.

After various further adventures involving girls in suspended cages and a meeting with an ageing Chinese midget who claims to be a prized sing-song girl he finds himself in an opium den. After he samples the merchandise we are treated to a delightfully strange opium dream sequence.

Of course there are times when we can’t help wondering if the entire movie is an opium dream. Only Gilbert De Quincey could tell us if this is so or not. Or perhaps even he could not answer that question. The strength of the movie is that it manages subtly to suggest such a possibility without ever giving us any clear indication if we are on the right track or not. Perhaps none of us can truly say if our lives are reality or illusion?

The events in which De Quincey gets caught up are certainly strange enough to be a dream, although once the viewer accepts this world as real they do follow with a certain logic.

This movie overall is a crazy mixture of action, drug dreams and general weirdness. The whole movie, not just the opium dream sequences, has the feeling of a drug-induced fantasy. Albert Zugsmith had the kind of varied career that made him the ideal director for such a strange film (he worked as a lawyer, a newspaper publisher and a band publicist as well as producing and directing exploitation movies). We’re never entirely sure whether we’re meant to believe anything that is happening, which presumably was Zugsmith’s intention. Robert Hill wrote the screenplay and can therefore take some of the credit for the film’s oddness.

While it’s unlikely that star Vincent Price had any more idea than anybody else what this movie was about he adapts extremely well and his unique screen presence is well-suited to such odd material. Linda Ho makes a deliciously over-the-top villainess.

This movie is available on DVD in the Warner Archive made-on-demand series. It’s an excellent anamorphic print. Picture quality (the movie was shot in black-and-white) is exceptional.

Confessions of an Opium Eater is a truly bizarre but undeniably intriguing and totally unclassifiable movie. Cult movie fans will certainly want to check his one out, especially given the fact that it has apparently never been released on home video before. A highly recommended slice of cinematic weirdness.


Laurie Brown said...

I had no idea that movie existed! 'Opium Eater' is certainly not a book I would have expected to be filmable- although it sounds like they basically just used the title. Hopefully it'll show up on TMC or PBS one of these days.

Kho said...

I did get this film but have not watched it yet. I have also heard that it never was released to theaters back in the day. With Vincent Price in his heyday, sounds like a sure moneymaker. Go figure.