Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Stranglers of Bombay (1959)

Indian during the times of the East India Company. Large numbers of people are disappearing every year without a trace, but since these people are Indians and of no commercial interest, the authorities, such as they are, don't care about them. At least, most of them don't. The rather decent colonialist Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe), not a man willing to just dismiss tragedies like the disappearance of the family of his servant Ram Das (Tutte Lemkow) years ago, has been assembling data regarding the disappearances for years, but - also thanks to the complete disinterest of his superiors in the matter - has only come to the rather vague suspicion that a cult could be responsible for the disappearances.

Unlike Lewis, the audience knows right from the title screen that the disappearances are murders, or rather ritual sacrifices, committed by the Thuggee cult of Kali, an influential and secret group that counts among its members the former regional ruler (Marne Maitland), as well as the potter from around the corner. Too bad nobody gives a toss.

However, once whole caravans of trade goods begin to disappear, and the British traders become rather angry, Lewis's boss Colonel Henderson (Andrew Cruickshank) starts to take an interest in the matter. Lewis hopes that Henderson will charge him with the necessary investigation, but is sorely disappointed when the freshly arrived upper class twat Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson) gets the job based on his superior qualifications - that is, having gone to the right school and being the son of an old friend of Henderson's.

Even when Lewis by chance finally acquires some evidence that could actually get the investigation somewhere, Connaught-Smith dismisses it and him out of sheer classist bull-headedness. At this point, however, the case has become so personal for Lewis he decides to rather step down from his position in the East India Company immediately and make his inquiries as a private citizen than to cope with this bullshit any longer while people around him are dying.

Even though Terence Fisher's The Stranglers of Bombay will never win the coveted award of "Denis's favourite Hammer non-horror movie" it still is a very entertaining, often tight and exciting, film from a studio and a director pretty much incapable of making anything boring. In this particular case, lurid pulp adventure fantasy - the existence of an actual thuggee cult of the size and type parts of the colonial authorities bragged about destroying being rather dubious -, researched historical fact (this is the curious case of an historical adventure movie with an actual historical consultant in the credits), and thriller and horror elements make for a rather interesting mix and enable Fisher to stage the always loved "native rituals", some rather low-key action, as well as giving him the opportunity to include moments that would not be out of place in a straight horror movie. Of the latter, there's especially a scene of surprisingly explicit revenge eye-gouging that would have found a place of honour in any of Hammer's or Corman's pieces of Gothic horror.

Hammer's historical adventures are often a bit more thoughtful than they strictly needed to be, and Stranglers is no exception. At least, it's not the expected thing for a film made in 1959 to suggest that the East India Company's politics in India were morally dubious, and at best consisted of ignoring all problems of the areas they supposedly governed as long as their money flow wasn't hindered. It's even more unexpected to see this sort of critique uttered this clearly. This being a Hammer film, the evils of colonialism are also connected to the ineffectuality and plain badness of the upper classes; I'm a bit disappointed the script didn't also put a cowardly vicar in.

Of course, despite its at least in part quite progressive politics, The Stranglers is also still a film where all Indian roles are played by white people in brownface, where the only mixed race character is a cult member, and where the "Indians" who aren't evil may be treated with a certain degree of respect - they are generally persons with actual motivations - but are still treated as persons below the British characters by the film. Still, for a film made in 1959, especially an adventure movie made for an audience that probably couldn't care less about these things, The Stranglers is admirably willing to be complicated.

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