Monday, November 29, 2010

'Stranglers of Bombay' is an excellent
Hammer adventure film

Stranglers of Bombay (1959)
Starring: Guy Rolfe, George Pastell, Allan Cuthbertson, Marne Maitland, Andrew Cruickshank, Roger Delgado, Jan Holden, Davis Spenser, and Tutte Lemkow
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An officer of the East India Company (Rolfe) battles ignorance and classism among the Indians as he tries to unlock the mystery behind mass disappearances across India, as well as the growing number of vanishing merchant caravans. He soon becomes a target himself, when the death-worshiping Thugees behind the disappearances decide to sacrifice him to their goddess Kali before he reveals they have infiltrated every layer of Indian society, even the British East India Company itself.

"Stranglers of Bombay" is a classic classic pulp-fiction style adventure tale with a heroic protagonist battling against dark and sinister forces that everyone else is either too ignorant or too scared to confront. It's also got a chilling horror vibe running through it, sparked by the hero being the only person who seems to want to take the threat of the Kali cult seriously and ignited fully when viewers get to witness the evil brutality of the cultists in the name of their goddess and the long reach of their leaders. The film takes on an even more frightening tone when one considers that it is based in part on actual historical facts.

Some out there with heightened sensitivities to political correctness may watch this movie with growing indignation over the "racism" present, what with a valiant White Man fighting to save civilization from Dark-skinned Savages. As is so often the case, those viewers will be too busy looking for offense to pay attention to what is really going on in the film.

Out of all the characters in the film, there is one single person who gives a damn about the victims of the Thugees and that is Guy Rolfe's obsessive truth-seeker Captain Lewis. The English merchants and troops employed by the East India Company only care about profits, the Indians don't care so long as victims aren't of their caste or religion, and every major character in the film except Lewis is complicit in their own way in allowing the Kali cult to operate and spread. One could make the case that Indian society would not have degenerated to the point where its people were incapable of mustering even the smallest degree of human compassion across religious and societal divisions if not for the commercial influences of the British Empire from the 17th century onward, but then one would be taking the same stance the film does; "Stranglers of Bombay" is even-handed in its indictment of British and Indian society of the time.

As for the film itself, it's a product of Hammer's Golden Age of Gothic. (Which would be something else those busily finding reasons to be offended might miss; the "corrupting alien other" is part and parcel with the genre this film belongs to.) It's therefore no surprise that Terence Fisher, the man responsible for Hammer's other great gothic adventure-tinged horror tales--even if the emphasis here is more on adventure than horror--was in the director's chair for this one as well. The film benefits tremendously for Fisher's talent for capturing exactly the right images and performances, as well as his ability to make even the cheapest movie look like it was made for ten times the budget.

While cast is okay, there is no one here who truly stands out the way Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, or even Andrew Keir did. Guy Rolfe is a decent enough actor, but he works primarily in the role because the audience quickly develops deep sympathy for him because he is working under idiot superiors who are more concerned with a person's social standing than competency--as demonstrated when Lewis is set aside for an unqualified high-born officer when it comes to leading the investigation into the disappearances--and who believe that their social rank alone makes them competent. Rolfe works because Allan Cuthbertson and Andrew Cruickshank project the snobbery and gross ignorance of their characters so clearly that viewers dislike them more than the film's viler villains, the Kali cultists.

As for the cultists, they are okay, but not spectacular. George Pastell is passable as the evil high priest, but even for 1959 he was a bit on the tame and gentile side. Marne Maitland is similarly okay in his role as a displaced Indian "headman" who seems to have allied himself with the Thugee out of a thirst for revenge more than anything--and I'm not giving away the plot here... at this late date, it would be a surprise if he wasn't in league with the villains--but that's it. The most interesting villain is a mute bit-player--the busty Marie Devereux--who is the only woman seen in the Kali temple or at their rituals. She reportedly had a bigger role in the film before the British censors decided to protect the world from her leering excitedly at the sight of men being tortured, but I doubt there would have been more of an explanation as to what she was doing at the rituals than we got. One can't help but wonder; how twisted and evil would a girl have to be to get a place at the heart of a male dominated death cult?

Marie Devereux as Kali's breast--um--best girl!

"Stranglers of Bombay" is available in the four-movie pack "Icons of Adventure," and it is actually one of the lesser offerings in that set. Check it out to see that Hammer Films could tackle adventure films as effectively as they could horror movies and thrillers.

(The preview for "Stranglers of Bombay", included as a bonus feature in the set is a lot of fun by itself. "See mongoose battle snake for a man's life ... in Strangloscope!")


  1. I'm primarily aware of Marie Devereux from her role as the first victim of Baron Meinster in 1960's "Brides of Dracula." She didn't get a lot to do in that film (mostly look on as the Baron and van Helsing fought), so it's too bad most of her footage was cut out in this film.

  2. I don't recall if she had any lines in "Brides of Dracula", but it would be an interesting coincidence if she was in two Hammer Films and didn't speak a line in either of them.

  3. Marie Devereux's portrayal and costume were almost X-rated for the time, and they aren't half bad for these times. Wow!


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