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The Stranglers of Bombay

by Glenn Erickson Jul 24, 2018

 

“Kali bids us to Kill! KILL!”  A full review of Indicator’s Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror collection will follow, but CineSavant jumps the gun to highlight Terence Fisher’s 1959 mass murder shocker. It adds up to more than exploitative and racist cheap thrills: it’s one of the key films to describe the roots of contemporary terrorism. David Zelag Goodman’s screenplay lets Hammer for once say something relevant about the Colonial past, even if it’s a case of mixed signals — and sex.


The Stranglers of Bombay
Blu-ray
Powerhouse Indicator
1959 / B&W / 2:35 Strangloscope (Megascope) / 81 min. / The Strangler of Bengal / available as part of the Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror disc collection with The Camp On Blood Island, Yesterday’s Enemy, and The Terror of the Tongs, at Powerhouse Films UK / Street Date July 30, 2018 / £44.99 (the set)
Starring: Guy Rolfe, Allan Cuthbertson, Marie Devereaux, Andrew Cruickshank, George Pastell, Marne Maitland, Jan Holden, Paul Stassino, Tutte Lemkow, David Spenser, Roger Delgado, Warren Mitchell, Ewen Solon.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editor: Alfred Cox
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by David Zelag Goodman
Produced by Anthony Hinds
Directed by
Terence Fisher

 

The Stranglers of Bombay is one of the ‘contentious’ Hammer films that remained more or less unavailable until the DVD era, like the unsavory-sounding (but thoroughly laudable) Never Take Sweets from a Stranger. I had no access to any of the exotic Columbia Hammers until a friend was in charge of remastering some of them; we were blown away in 1996 to see the uncut These are the Damned. Before then Terence Fisher’s Stranglers had existed only as an entry in the Hardy Encyclopedia, introduced with a description that made it sound like a must-see:

‘Fisher’s first Hammer horror film without Jimmy Sangster as writer meshes sex and terror to an unprecedented degree in a colonial fantasy chronicling both the callousness of British rule in India and the amazed culture-shock when a mirror image of their own murderous greed is presented to them with equally high-sounding moral-religious justification’.

We were curious to learn what the legendary cut material might be. The U.S. version we could see bore no telltale edits or sound jumps, only a rude cut to black in the title sequence that made us suspect that something might be missing.

Stranglers is yet another Hammer effort to spin a genre in the direction of bloody horror, as they had just done with a war film. Despite being based on recorded truth, the POW atrocities of The Camp on Blood Island have an overpowering feeling of exploitative bad taste. What now seems culturally offensive to us in many English pictures of the 1950s is the characterization of foreigners as inscrutable, barbaric and ‘un-English.’ The Japanese in Camp are barbaric degenerates, while the Indians of Stranglers are either passively hostile or fiendishly monstrous religious fanatics. Of course, the average PC examination of either movie will not look beyond the sight of Indian and Japanese portrayed by English actors in exaggerated yellow-face makeup. That convention hasn’t completely gone away.

 

India had won its independence from colonial rule in 1948, but Stranglers is one of the first British films to criticize that rule (and only partly). Since the 1850s, the British East India Company was in charge of the country’s trade and administration… essentially ‘privatizing’ the lives of millions of Indians. The ‘Thuggee Affair’ in the historical record is the discovery by Major General Sleeman that a secret cult of thieving stranglers existed. It is traditionally used in drama to demonstrate that England’s presence was beneficial.

The excellent screenplay by American writer David Zelag Goodman attacks the concept of Thuggee from multiple directions. It is first the Rudyard Kipling- like adventure of an English Captain who uncovers the murder cult for King and Country. It’s secondly an examination of the fanatic cult itself, which warps the Indian deity Kali to serve as a ‘Death Mother’ demanding murder for its own sake. The leaders of the cult are maniacal hypocrites, in that they direct their cult members to attack caravans for profit. Thirdly, Goodman stresses a political twist that can’t be ignored: the cult leaders’ other purpose is to subvert British rule and keep rebellion alive. The Stranglers of Bombay is more than an adventure about the suppression of a gang of fanatics — parts of the screenplay portray the Thugs very much as terrorists, in the modern sense.

Hammer’s elaborate production and Terence Fisher’s measured direction give Stranglers a sense of real-world credibility. Merchants in a regional town (not Bombay/Mumbai) complain that their trade caravans are ‘disappearing.’ They air their grievances to the East India Company’s Colonel Henderson (Andrew Cruikshank) through Patel Shari (Marne Maitland), a rich local who ran trade before the British took over. Captain Harry Lewis (Guy Rolfe of Mr. Sardonicus) is keen to track down the killers, and has the necessary knowledge of the local customs. But Henderson instead appoints the son of a friend, Captain Connaught-Smith (Allan Cuthbertson) to the post. The condescending Connaught-Smith ignores Lewis’s advice, and discounts the evidence of mass graves indicating that ‘something’ is systematically wiping out entire caravans. Captain Lewis must investigate on his own, and pushes forward even after the disappearance of his servant Ram Das (Tutte Lemkow). Lewis’s wife is horrified when Ram Das’s severed hand is thrown on her dining room table.

What Lewis only slowly uncovers is a diabolical cult of fanatics that waylays travelers and caravans, murders everyone en masse, and buries all of the evidence. A High Priest (George Pastell) indoctrinates his cultists in the use of the silk garrotte, all the time emphasizing that to kill without drawing blood is to serve the demanding Kali. Cult members that betray their sacred oath suffer horrible mutilations, and are used as practice kills by young initiates. The Thug conspiracy is seemingly everywhere. Not even Captain Lewis suspects that it has infiltrated the ranks of the Company.

 

Stranglers has strong adventure elements. Lewis goes on a tiger hunt. He carries his pet mongoose on trips, and it saves his life when the High Priest stakes him in the sun before altar of Kali, as a victim for a king cobra. But everything contributes to the depiction of the Thug conspiracy. To keep the cult secret and instill fear in the ranks, terrible punishments are dealt out to rule-breakers. Leaks don’t occur because potential leakers are systematically eliminated. A Thug captured by the Company is so brainwashed into thinking his holy duty is to die, that once on the gallows he joyfully hangs himself, pushing his executioners aside.

The film is an unbroken series of shocking highlights. The story’s only weakness is at the end, when it suddenly abandons an almost perfect progression of scenes to wrap things up with an unconvincing action scene, after which the main villain inexplicably reveals his perfidy to all.

The morbid action highlight puts the audience in the bizarre position of partly siding with a band of mass murderers. After ignoring Lewis’s advice and entreaties, Captain Connaught-Smith personally leads a giant caravan. He finds himself in a genuinely horrifying situation — surrounded by a sea of death and the inescapable truth that he’s been wrong all along. Nobody merits such an awful fate, but we can’t help but think that Connaught-Smith is getting exactly what he deserves.

 

The Stranglers of Bombay shows shocking things that simply weren’t directly depicted in earlier movies about fanatic Indian cults, like the classic escapist adventure Gunga Din. Flesh is cut and arms are branded with hot irons, in big close-up. We see pathetic prisoners with their limbs hacked off and their eyes put out. Dialogue informs us that their tongues are removed as well — we don’t see this, but Hammer depicted the same mutilation in its Technicolor The Mummy. The sadistic element is emphasized at all times.

Was Stranglers the title that brought the wrath of conservative critics and the censors down on Hammer Films? The movie wasn’t even rated ‘X,’ probably for three reasons: it was an historical thriller, not a ‘degenerate’ horror movie; its scenes of blood and mutilation are in B&W, not color; and, the mutilated victims on camera are almost all non- Anglos. That last reason speaks to the core of racism: doing terrible things to Indians is less offensive than doing the same things to Englishmen.

 

The cultists are an unforgettable gallery of fiends, too individualized to simply be racial bogeymen. Hammer’s all-purpose ‘horror-wog’ George Pastell (From Russia with Love) nails his role as the dynamic high priest, carrying almost the entire burden of making the Kali cult into a viable conspiracy. His lesson to the initiates on how to beg and grovel to deceive is a mini-lesson in what too many non-Anglo subjects must do to survive in a colonial state. The Priest’s assistant Bundar (Roger Delgado) helps enforce the horrible punishments. Paul Stassino (Thunderball) is a devious undercover agent on Colonel Henderson’s own staff.

Allan Cuthbertson didn’t always play insufferable prigs, but that seems to be his most common role: Shake Hands with the Devil, The Guns of Navarone. His Captain Connaught-Smith is a familiar figure in any large company — an entitled exceptionalist disinterested in anything but moving up the ladder. Knowing and caring nothing about India, he’ll conduct some interviews and write a report saying there’s nothing to be learned. Connaught-Smith regards Captain Lewis as a nobody, someone to be ignored. He’s not stupid, but his boundless arrogance is is downfall.

Marne Maitland’s complex leader Patel Shari directs the cult while posing as cooperative to the English. He’s a depraved sadist with a wicked sense of humor, who is made sick to his stomach by the very atrocities he commands to be performed on the cult’s victims. He’s of course a racist invention, the polite but two-faced foreigner that pretends friendship while indulging in gruesome revenge fantasies, the kind that occurred in the’ Black Hole of Calcutta‘.

 

Even though his victims are almost all Indians, not Englishmen, Patel is a key film character predicting the nature of modern political terrorism. In one brief exchange Patel voices key dialogue indicating an advanced, post-colonial ‘justification’ for acts of terror. Losing his patience over Connaught-Smith’s insistence that the secret shallow graves are just ordinary graveyards, Captain Lewis shares his frustration with Patel, who answers matter-of-factly:

If the Company maintains that it is a cemetery, “then it is a cemetery. Whoever rules decides the truth.

Patel’s few words capture exactly the nature of political power — England claims a benign rule but is really using force to impose its version of reality on its subjects. ‘Seizing control of the narrative’ is a politician’s first goal. Political oppression requires the spreading of self-serving lies. A despot can lie with impunity.

Stranglers’ most exploitative angle is likely its number one draw for today’s Hammer fans. Model-actress Marie Devereaux is the un-billed Karim, a female cult member who decorates various scenes in the High Priest’s lair. Hammer would later become famous for its reliance on bosomy actresses to be victimized by vampires, etc., but Devereaux’s revealing costume is the most extreme before the rating system came in ten years later. Even critic Raymond Durgnat noted her ‘ostentatious bosom’ in the scene where Karim taunts the thirsty Lewis, tied spreadeagled in the sun.

The teasing of Lewis with more than just the water he can’t have is exactly the kind of mix of sex and sadism that got horror films banned from England 25 years before. The Hardy Encyclopedia never misses a chance to make a political statement with horror, and in this case interprets Devereaux’s Karim as a literal sexual terrorist:

‘… she manages to convey the passionate excitement that can accompany the twisted but liberating explosion of revenge after decades of poverty and repression.’

Interesting critical studies examine some classic Hammer films that involve weak or crippled male characters dominated by strong, proactive female characters: Marla Landi in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Yvonne Furneaux in The Mummy, Barbara Shelley in The Gorgon. As a distillation of pure sexual sadism, Karim is a proud member of this sorority. She smiles at the High Priest’s calls to violence, and almost giggles to see the blind, mutilated Thug victims crawling out to eat slops from a bowl. Karim is sexually aroused when witnessing arm-slashings and hot-iron brandings. She feeds on Captain Smith’s suffering. The commentators on the Indicator disc peg Karim’s function correctly: she represents the film’s notion of an evil Kali, a god frequently pictured with a similar ‘ostentatious bosom.’ How dare critics accuse Stranglers of lurid sensationalism — it’s culturally accurate!

 

The only female figure opposing Karim is Lewis’s wife Mary, a delicate lady of the era, whose prime concern is helping her husband manage her career. Mary may be the last of the shrinking violet Hammer heroines in the mold of Melissa Stribling in Horror of Dracula. She is the one confronted by a threatening severed hand, a frequent image in the nightmares of colonial occupiers. What Stranglers could really have used is a Mary-Karim confrontation, like that between Edna May Oliver and Blanche Yurka in the classic A Tale of Two Cities. Captain Lewis shouldn’t be the only one to exhibit British pluck and spirit.

Despite its charges of Company ignorance and incompetence, The Stranglers of Bombay never posits a full anti-colonial position statement. As with traditional tales, it’s assumed that India needs the paternal stability of England to hold back the forces of anarchy and darkness. Although Guy Rolfe’s Captain Lewis complains that England may lose India, he’s still a product of his age. In one scene Lewis is dismissive of the Muslim call to prayer:

“I suppose you get to believing it if you keep on repeating it.”

But we like his self-satisfied reaction to see his theory vindicated, purring, “They’ve all been murr-dered.” We have to admit that we’re a bit disappointed that Captain Lewis’s main reward, after uncovering the Crime of the Century and single-handedly assuring the success of Britain in India, is just to keep his lousy job. I’d say that’s fine, as long as Karim becomes his new receptionist. Or was Karim one of the thousand-plus Thugs hanged in the subsequent criminal investigation?


 

Powerhouse Indicator’s Blu-ray of The Stranglers of Bombay is given its own keep case in the four-disc set Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror. The rich B&W scan is much sharper than the old Sony DVD. Hammer’s B&W productions from this period were often more elaborate than their Technicolor work, and the marketplace set constructed at the relatively tiny Bray Studio looks impressively large. Likewise the soundstage night exteriors are designed well. The only been-there-done-that are the exteriors filmed in the same depressing Bray excavation (a gravel pit?) revisited far too often. A wilted palm tree or two do not make it seem more like India. Cinematographer Arthur Grant does make everything seem too bright and too hot, a trick that might be difficult in color. Hammer correspondence claims that historical realism dictated the use of B&W, but I can’t see anybody imagining that the gore-mutilation scenes would ever be approved if shown in color.

The extras for Stranglers will be a big attraction for curious Hammer fans. Jonathan Rigby and Alan Barnes host an informative featurette examining the film as a whole. Colette Balmain discusses actress Jan Holden for a six-minute ‘women of Hammer’ piece. David Z. Goodman’s commentary has been retained from the old DVD; he’s engaging enough but has little to say about his early screenplay. Getting some positive web buzz is a long featurette on James Bernard’s dynamic music track scored with nervous drums and brass. Spokesman David Huckvale approaches the score in terms of the Avant-Garde. I hope he waxes as critical on the James Bernard music for the anticipated Indicator disc of These are the Damned.

Even though the BBFC files on the film have gone missing, ex- censor Richard Falcon spends 27 minutes covering its censorship issues. Violence was trimmed for the U.K., while short cuts of Marie Devereaux were dropped for America (but with one left in the trailer!). We’re told that a couple of tiny trims have yet to be located.

The best news of all is that Indicator gives us three encodings of the film. The slightly longer UK cut changes the placement of a text scroll over a map of India. That accounts for the hard cut in older releases of the U.S. version. The ‘integral’ version keeps everything, which should please fans to no end: Marie Devereaux’s brief but telling ‘aroused’ cutaway shots are intact.

Unfortunately, the ‘Strangloscope’ format is called out only on the American trailer and posters. A Megascope logo has to suffice for the film’s original credits.

CineSavant will be following up with a review of the full Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror disc set.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Stranglers of Bombay
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Three presentations: the original UK and US theatrical versions; and a newly- created ‘integral’ version compiling all existing footage; Audio commentary by screenwriter David Z Goodman; A new documentary by Marcus Hearn, narrated by Claire Louise Amias and featuring film historians Alan Barnes and Jonathan Rigby; The Stranglers of Bombay and the Censor (2018): ex-BBFC examiner Richard Falcon on the film’s history with the Board; Musical Orientalism (2018): an appreciation of the James Bernard score by David Huckvale; Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Trailers from Hell trailer commentary, Original theatrical trailer, Image gallery of promotional photography and publicity material; 40-page insert booklet.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 23, 2018
(5783stran)
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Here’s Brian Trenchard-Smith on the Hammer thriller:

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.