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Satan Never Sleeps

by Glenn Erickson Jan 19, 2019

Pearl S. Buck and Leo McCarey give it to ya straight: Red China is BAD. This strange mix of Cold War truth-telling and mawkish, ethics-challenged church sentiment may have meant well, but it overstates everything. A top-flight cast works hard to make it compelling: William Holden, France Nuyen and in his last film, Clifton Webb.


Satan Never Sleeps
Blu-ray
Twilight Time
1962 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 125 min./ Street Date , 2019 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: William Holden, Clifton Webb, France Nuyen, Athene Seyler, Martin Benson, Weaver Lee, Burt Kwouk.
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Film Editor: Gordon Pilkington
Original Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Written by Claude Binyon from the novel The China Story by Pearl S. Buck
Produced and Directed by
Leo McCarey

 

Leo McCarey’s film career followed quite a strange trajectory. A master of Laurel & Hardy classics, and an absolute king of sophisticated comedy in the 1930s, his cooperative method for improvising details on the set produced brilliant scenes that played as 100% natural, unplanned and extemporaneous. McCarey helped The Marx Brothers do their best work, but also turned around for the uncompromisingly non-commercial Make Way for Tomorrow, a sober social issue picture that inspired the Italian neo-realists. His Love Affair gives romantic bathos a good name. Then, his wildly popular Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s proved that there was gold in sentimental comedies set in a Catholic church.

At that point McCarey just ran amuck, mixing religion with a hysterical mix of all-Americanism. His ineffectual My Son John is painful to watch, and manic anti-Communism pervades his strangely sinister ‘patriotic’ short subject You Can Change the World. It was all tied in with his friendly testimony to the HUAC committee.

With his star descending, McCarey bounced back with a remake of Love Affair, the well-remembered An Affair to Remember. Bob Hope rallied behind Leo McCarey when he returned to comedy with the amusing Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! — the comedian appears in the film’s trailer, trying to drum up interest. But McCarey’s final picture returns to the subject of anti-Communism, this time folded into a story that again teases the viewer with a ‘romantic’ subplot involving Catholic clergy — star William Holden is again pursued by a sexy Chinese woman, even though he’s a priest.

 

Did Hollywood ever make Cold War anticommunist propaganda that didn’t insult the intelligence? Satan Never Sleeps is so weak that Maoists could have shown it as a comedy — if Maoists had a sense of humor. The self-aborting commercial mess pleased few in ’62. Famed author Pearl S. Buck, whose missionary family had worked in China since before the Boxer Rebellion, wrote the story for sale to Hollywood, and then finished it as a book with the same title. In the late ’30s Ms. Buck made a noted speech decrying the way bad missionary work was doing no good in China, and making Americans unwelcome there. But after the war, when Mao took over, she was denied return to the land to which she’d dedicated her entire life. Satan Never Sleeps turns the awful social crimes of the Maoist Communists into a cheap melodrama. William Holden and France Nuyen do well under circumstances that would thwart any attempt at quality drama. Clifton Webb performs admirably in what would become his final movie.

The onslaught of the Communist takeover in Southwest China, 1949, calls for harsh measures against Christian missionaries that hold too much influence over peasants that should be worshipping Chairman Mao. Father O’Banion (William Holden) has rescued local girl Siu Lan (France Nuyen) from drowning along the way and is now saddled with a childlike, lovesick woman who doesn’t understand that he cannot be romantically involved with her. O’Banion’s late arrival delays the departure of the outgoing priest Father Bovard (Clifton Webb) long enough for the Red Army to arrive and put them all under house arrest. Bovard is discouraged to find that one of his most adoring altar boys, Ho San (Weaver Lee) has become a fanatic communist colonel. Ho San lives in luxury and steals everything he can from the mission. He has the altar burned and replaces it with banners exalting Chairman Mao. He also lusts after Siu Lan and eventually rapes her. Nothing changes until the arrival of a sinister Soviet advisor, Kuznietsky (Martin Benson), who insists that the imprisoned priests will either confess their crimes against the people, or be shot.

Let me start out by saying that I’m not criticizing the historical content in Satan Never Sleeps — it’s difficult to find anything good to say about Communist China. Just the same, Leo McCarey’s film is embarrassingly naïve and in terrible taste. The script places the two priests and France Nuyen’s ‘cute’ China Doll in a bad sitcom that could be called Three’s Company in the Chapel. Because Father O’Banion never simply denies that he’s not interested in Siu Lan, Father Bovard keeps jumping to conclusions. Thankfully, although his character is no charmer, Clifton Webb’s acting is too sophisticated to allow these scenes to be as insulting as written.

Besides teasing us with the flirtation of a Chinese woman with a handsome American priest, the story is overloaded with child-like, ignorant Asian stereotypes. The Red Chinese officials are too stupid to run their own revolution, so a Russian puppet master is shown offering sinister guidance. The destruction of a church is equated with the utter ruin of civilization. The Chinese villain changes sides just when he needs to do so to survive, but the story ignores that and treats his conversion as if he were the Prodigal Brother. Faith overrides a rape and endorses the marriage between the rapist and his victim. And McCarey saw no moral conflict in this?

Satan Never Sleeps achieves the opposite of its aim; it’s not even effective propaganda. My Son John had been laughed off screens ten years before; and this movie in no way can stand next to the mature, challenging satire of
Doctor Strangelove, just two years away. McCarey’s cultural anachronism instead tries to mix two incompatible tones: a deadly-serious anti-Red polemic, and the amusing ‘churchy’ light drama of Going My Way. One moment Father Bovard is encouraging Siu Lan to pursue her true love, not realizing she’s set her cap for his priest associate. In the next scene Bovard is presuming that O’Banion and Siu Lan are lovers. Later on O’Banion and Siu Lan exchange sweet words, with all the trimmings of a love scene, including sweet music. All of this sitcom fun happens in the shadow of the life and death conflict with the implacable Ho San. Ho San dares O’Banion to ‘stop turning the other cheek,’ while repeatedly striking him.

 

Christianity is upheld as the ultimate good, and the Communists are branded as Evil primarily because they dare to replace the church authority: Mao is the new God. Ex-altar boy Ho San is naturally a corrupt hypocrite, accusing the priests of hoarding while confiscating the church wine for his own drinking purposes. Ironically, enough, several scenes revolve around the two priests finding an excuse to open a bottle for a quick nip! Father Bovard would naturally prefer Ho San to remain a dutiful smiling altar boy, following priestly commands. The fathers are of course much more humanitarian than the brutal Reds, unless we examine their willingness to harness Siu Lan as a cook. That suits their own purposes even though it puts the attractive girl where the lecherous Ho San can easily find her.

Communism, anticlericalism, rape – they’re all really the same Evils, you see, easily assigned to the nasty Reds in Satan Never Sleeps. For a third act, the movie does a flip-flop with the character of Ho San, Siu Lan’s rapist. Condemned as too lenient by his party superiors, he’s promised a cruel exile to a re-education/labor camp. When Ho San abruptly returns to the side of righteousness, the movie pretends that it’s for the right reason. Back in the fold, Ho San helps the priests and Siu Lan in a desperate flight to freedom. After a particularly cheesy sacrifice, the survivors reach Hong Kong and safety. We’re told that a change was made to the story during filming — William Holden insisted that at least one of the priests should survive the ordeal.

 

McCarey’s production has pretty photography but too much obvious matte work. Second unit scenes were filmed somewhere in the English countryside, with matte paintings adding details like pagodas, etc. The sets reportedly were held over from Fox’s U.K.- shot The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, shot four years earlier. William Holden is inserted into these scenes with weak traveling mattes. The very first shot shows him leading a burro down a path, an interior set matted against some Scottish valley or another. Although we’re outdoors, the burro throws more than one set of shadows. After a brief cutaway, the shot is clumsily repeated — Holden retraces the exact same steps, without so much as a change of angle. I’ve read one source that credits the noted Jack Cardiff as ‘director of additional sequences.’ Critic David Cairns reports that Leo McCarey left the last week or so of filming to ‘his assistant.’ He also points out a good detail — the helicopter at the finish seems really anachronistic for Red China in 1949.

Satan Never Sleeps remains one of the least palatable of films protesting totalitarian conditions in Communist countries. Now that I think of it, the subgenre does not wholly consist of offensive movies; Elia Kazan’s 1953 Man on a Tightrope is about a Czech circus that escapes to the West, and it’s both convincing and fair in its judgment against the oppressive Red regime. Part of Tightrope’s relative obscurity may be due to a critical backlash against director Kazan’s own political choices.

William Holden beats out Humphrey Bogart in the competition for priest-as-tough-guy (although Bogie was just pretending). Holden is just starting to show the grit and bitterness that would later overwhelm us in The Wild Bunch. Clifton Webb escapes with his dignity intact; he looks frail and his trademark mustache has been shaved off, but his acting is robust. France Nuyen does what she can with her stereotyped love-crazy girl-child, but most of her part consists of charming cutesy-poo smiles and gestures. The Asian actors playing the Red soldiers don’t have much to work with and are colorless goons. Sneaky servant Bert Kwouk was cast in nearly every Brit picture requiring an excitable Asian villain; he missed out on Dr. No but turned up in two or three other Bond pictures. Martin Benson’s sinister Russian is unintentionally funny, if perhaps accurate: he announces himself as having no authority over the local Chinese officials, and immediately reprimands and threatens everybody. Athene Seyler (Karswell’s mum in the superior Curse of the Demon) has almost nothing to do; treated like servants, she and her fellow sisters are only missed when there’s nobody to cook or tidy up the mission.


The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Satan Never Sleeps presents Leo McCarey’s filmic swan song in a good light; the HD encoding is mostly attractive, and does well by Oswald Morris’s CinemaScope images. Only the phony mattework harms the illusion of filming on location. The soundtrack is appropriately bombastic, especially the blast of music that accompanies the sight of Chairman Mao’s banner being raised where Father Bovard’s altar used to be.

The disc’s only extra is a trailer, but Julie Kirgo’s concise notes emphasize the show’s finer points as well as some of its quizzical elements, such as Ho San’s instant change of loyalties, or why O’Banion acts so coy and receptive to Siu Lan’s romantic notions. The new cover art is attractive; I’d like to know what the vertical column of Chinese text says.

The film’s original posters seem particularly ill- conceived. The very title isn’t particularly commercial, as to many audiences the words Devil and Satan connote horror. The design sends a totally wrong impression. Behind a large image of William Holden’s face, France Nuyen appears in an inset square, full length. It works like a thought balloon: Satan is putting evil thoughts into Holden’s head, in the shape of an Asian woman.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Satan Never Sleeps
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -minus
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 17, 2019
(5909sata)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.