Bright Lights Film Journal

Albert Zugsmith’s Opium Dreams: Confessions of an Opium Eater

Confessions of an Opium Eater

Can one man’s brain contain Written on the Wind, The Incredible Shrinking Man, LSD, I Hate You!, and Confessions of an Opium Eater? If the man is Albert Zugsmith it could.

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Any fair assessment of Albert Zugsmith should begin with the fact that once upon a time in Hollywood, in a brief period lasting from 1956 through 1958, this man produced at least four genre masterpieces: Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. “Zug” not only provided the climate in which these strange flowers grew; in most cases it was he who originated the projects. It was a remarkable achievement, one that any producer could be proud of. But was he honored for it? Did the Academy shower him with awards? Hardly.

Hollywood preferred to view Zugsmith as an exploitation filmmaker, one who was all too willing to capitalize on unwholesome subject matter – miscegenation, drug abuse, disturbed sexuality – in a word, the FORBIDDEN. In those days the arbiters of taste rarely considered that sleaze could coexist on the same plane as visual fluency and high artistic expression. Indeed, what can one say about a producer who voluntarily made no less than seven films with Mamie Van Doren? Only, as Dietrich says at the end of Touch of Evil, that he was “some kind of man.”

Albert Zugsmith was born on April 24, 1910, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and educated at the University of Virginia. He worked as a newspaper reporter and editor while still in his teens and eventually became the owner and manager of several newspapers, and radio and television stations. A man of diverse interests, he was also the New York attorney who represented the writer/artist team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in their 1948 lawsuit against D.C. Comics over profits generated by the Superman character. By the early ’50s, “I had enough money to do what I pleased,” and what it pleased Zug to do was to enter the world of motion picture production. In 1952 at RKO, under the auspices of Howard Hughes, Zug produced his first film, an hysterical anti-communist fantasy called Invasion U.S.A. Other early projects included Top Banana (1952), an independent production adapted from a Phil Silvers stage hit, shot (but not shown) in 3-D, and Paris Model (Columbia 1953) starring Eva Gabor. The Square Jungle (1955), a boxing film, began Zug’s six-year association with Universal Studios and its production head, Eddie Muhl. At Universal, Zug made women’s films (Female on the Beach), science fiction (The Incredible Shrinking Man), and westerns (Star in the Dust), but the genre to which he gravitated most regularly was film noir (Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, The Tattered Dress). He brought Douglas Sirk the story that became Written on the Wind starring Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone. That film was so successful that Sirk proposed to Zugsmith that they adapt William Faulkner’s Pylon to the screen (The Tarnished Angels) starring the same three principals.

Zug cast Orson Welles as the racist ranch owner in Man in the Shadow (1957), a contemporary noir western directed by Jack Arnold. During the shooting of the film, Welles and Zugsmith became drinking buddies. Welles asked Zug if he could direct one of Zug’s unproduced projects. Zug handed Welles a Paul Monash script called Badge of Evil. That script, rewritten, became Touch of Evil, Zug and Welles’ noir masterpiece, and the first and only film Welles directed for an American studio after the late 1940s.

1958 was clearly Zug’s peak year, with Touch of Evil and The Tarnished Angels both shooting on adjoining sound stages at the Universal lot. That same year MGM hired him to produce a series of teen-pics including the remarkable High School Confidential! (Jack Arnold), The Beat Generation, and Girls’ Town. For MGM, Zug also produced two noir social dramas, The Big Operator, with Mickey Rooney as a Hoffa-like labor leader, and Night of the Quarter Moon (Hugo Haas).

By 1961, the power of Zug’s patron at Universal, Eddie Muhl, had considerably diminished. Zug produced one last film at Universal, the sex comedy The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, which he also directed. Adam and Eve was promptly condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency – the kiss of death at the time. Thus ended Albert Zugsmith’s association with the major studios.

In 1961 and ’62, Zug directed two films for Allied Artists, Dondi, a family-oriented film, and Confessions of an Opium Eater aka Souls for Sale. Throughout the rest of the decade, the films he produced or directed, including the disastrous Fanny Hill (Russ Meyer) and Movie Star American Style (Zugsmith), were low-budget independent productions, often shot outside the United States. The last films he directed, e.g., Two Roses and a Golden Rod (1969), were softcore porn.

Among his peers, the filmmaker Zug most resembles is Sam Fuller. Like Fuller, Zug had a background in journalism – the films of both men have the immediacy of tabloids. Like Fuller, he was attracted to exotic subject matter that revealed the dark side of the American Dream. Zug was also a genuine auteur, as demonstrated by the themes and motifs that recur obsessively in the films he produced, directed, and/or wrote.

Blondes in Convertibles

Mamie van Doren

The Blonde – hair blowing in the wind, image of unbridled, aggressive feminine sexuality. The Convertible – symbol of America’s postwar affluence. Together, they embody the threat and promise of a New Age. In Written on the Wind, wealthy Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone) tools around her father’s oil fields in a red sports car. Similar images of beautiful Elaine Stewart driving her convertible open The Tattered Dress (Arnold, 1957). The famous tracking shot that opens Touch of Evil follows a wealthy contractor and his blonde mistress as they drive a convertible toward an explosive end. Later, in the same film, platinum-haired Janet Leigh is driven by convertible to a motel where she will be drugged and raped. In Girls’ Town, a bleached-blonde Elinor Donahue drag-races in a convertible driven by Mel Tormé. The deliberately absurd image that concludes High School Confidential! has undercover cop Russ Tamblyn sharing a convertible with a blonde trio – Jan Sterling, Diane Jergens, and Mamie Van Doren.

The Menace

More often than not, Zug’s films are about some menace to society at large, generally reflecting the headlines of the time. In Invasion U.S.A. (1958) and The Girl in the Kremlin (1957), it was communism. Fallout and chemical pollution trigger The Incredible Shrinking Man. Racism haunts Man in the Shadow, Touch of Evil, and Night of the Quarter Moon. High School Confidential! is about dope pushers who target high school students, while College Confidential confronts changing sexual mores. Corrupt labor is the subject of The Big Operator, while Movie Star American Style deals – comically – with the “psychedelic revolution.” Even Confessions of an Opium Eater, a period film, deals with the social injustice of Asian women abducted and sold into slavery.

Abuses of the Law

Most likely, it was Zug’s background as an attorney that drew him so often to stories of frame-ups, false accusations, and abuses by officers of the law. In Written on the Wind, Rock Hudson’s character is falsely accused of murder. In The Tattered Dress, a local sheriff (Jack Carson) frames attorney Jeff Chandler for jury tampering. Touch of Evil‘sDetective Quinlan has built his entire career on the planting of false evidence. In College Confidential, a professor (Steve Allen) is falsely accused of showing pornography to his students, based on evidence planted by the local magistrate.

Drugs

Alcohol in Written on the Wind. Alcohol, marijuana, and heroin in Touch of Evil. Marijuana and heroin in High School Confidential! Opium in Confessions of an Opium Eater. LSD in Movie Star American Style aka LSD, I Hate You.

Disturbed Sex

Potency problems plague Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) in Written on the Wind, while his sister (Dorothy Malone) is a nymphomaniac. The Girl in the Kremlin’s Joseph Stalin has a fetish for bald women. The Incredible Shrinking Man seeks comfort in the arms of a carnival midget after becoming “too small” to make love to his wife. The Tarnished Angels’ Laverne (Malone) is part of an odd ménage a trois. Girls’ Town’s Serafina constructs an elaborate fantasy sex life around a Paul Anka-like pop singer (played by Paul Anka). The Beat Generation concerns a rapist. In the Zugsmith-directed Psychopathia Sexualis aka On Her Bed of Roses (1966), a nymphomaniac falls in love with an impotent mama’s boy/mass murderer. In Touch of Evil, fat, alcoholic Hank Quinlan (Welles) compulsively reenacts the murder of his wife, using Akim Tamiroff’s character as a surrogate!

Casting

Zugsmith and starlets

Like any number of auteurs, Zugsmith had a stock company that followed him from studio to studio. Apart from the seven films Zug made with Mamie Van Doren, he also made seven with character actor (and future SAG president) William Schallert, six with Charles Chaplin, Jr., five with bandleader (and Van Doren husband) Ray Anthony, five with Jackie “Uncle Fester” Coogan, four with blonde Jan Sterling, three with scat-singer Mel Tormé, three with football player Norman “Woo Woo” Grabowski, two with horror hostess Vampira, and three with Zsa Zsa or Eva Gabor. Critics who have commented on the surreally eclectic casting of Touch of Evil (Welles, Heston, Dietrich, and Leigh, Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis “Gunsmoke” Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor, et al.) must not have noticed that this is typical of Zugsmith’s productions. The miscegenation drama Night of the Quarter Moon stars Julie London and Nat “King” Cole (both singers) along with John Drew Barrymore, Dean Jones, Agnes Moorehead, Jackie Coogan, Ray Anthony, Charles Chaplin, Jr., and Arthur Shields. College Confidential stars Van Doren, Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Mamie’s father), boxer Rocky Marciano, English thespian Herbert Marshall, footballer “Woo Woo” Grabowski, and a quartet of famous journalists (former Zug associates?), Walter Winchell, Sheilah Graham, Earl Wilson, and James Bacon, playing themselves.

Dreams/Hypnosis/Hallucination

Casting was not the only surrealistic aspect of Zug’s work. Many of his films contain dream or dreamlike sequences. In Invasion U.S.A., a group of people stare into a brandy glass and collectively hallucinate a communist invasion. In The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, a stranded couple dream they are back in the Garden of Eden. The Incredible Shrinking Man, while not literally a dream, is a Freudian nightmare in which an average white male discovers he is shrinking steadily at the rate of one quarter inch a day. As he shrinks, the world around him grows increasingly alien. He becomes so small that he has to live in a child’s dollhouse, threatened by the family cat. Becoming smaller still, he learns to survive in a surreal world in his own basement where everyday household objects like scissors and a spool of thread loom as large as automobiles and buses.

Zug’s teen-pics and comedies are surreal to the core in a style that anticipates John (Crybaby) Waters. One of Zug’s best, Sex Kittens Go to College aka Beauty and the Robot (1960), has two amazing hypnosis/dream sequences. In the first, a PhD and former stripper played by Mamie Van Doren hypnotizes a group of nightclubbing college professors (John Carradine, Jackie Coogan, and Louis Nye) into mimicking her every move as she performs an erotic dance. In the second, Mamie uses her gifts to psychoanalyze the college’s chief administrator: a Robot!

And the Robot dreams as follows: He/It is standing in an empty malt shop, wearing a fraternity jacket and a cap. “Pass – The – Bourbon,” he says to his companion, a chimp. Enter a stripper dressed as a charwoman. “Dance – Doll,” orders the Robot, and she begins to dance. She is followed by three other stripteasers who conclude their dances by humping the Robot. One of the strippers has a silent midget valet who holds onto her discarded clothes. If all of this sounds like something out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, rest assured, that is how it plays.

The Robot dream sequence in Sex Kittens was just a warm-up for Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), also directed by Zug, which stands out as one of the most authentically dreamlike features ever made. Marketed as a horror movie, Confessions aka Souls for Sale aka Evils of Chinatown is actually a pulp adventure story with horror overtones, not unlike Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but significantly weirder, more personal, and avant-garde.

Confessions of an Opium Eater

Shot in black-and-white, the film begins abstractly with images of waves breaking, a horse standing on a cliff. (What is this, Ingmar Bergman?) Next, we see a group of faceless men landing on the shore. The camera pans away from the men, following their shadows, to reveal a skeleton draped in seaweed. Now, for the first time, we hear the voice of the film’s narrator, Vincent Price, saying: “I am De Quincey. I dream, and I create dreams. Out of the opium pipe I see sailing into our vision a junk. Its cargo, women . . . . Their destination and mine the human auctions in Chinatown.” As Price speaks, we watch a beautifully composed image of a junk sailing in slow motion through a dense fog. (Confessions was shot by Joseph Biroc, Robert Aldrich’s cameraman on Kiss Me Deadly, and others.) It will be another ten minutes before we see Price in the flesh. In the meantime, we are treated to a nearly wordless sequence in which a cargo of slave women is transferred by net from one boat to another, their arrival on shore interrupted by another group of Asians determined to set them free. The freedom fighters succeed in rescuing one girl only.

Price himself enters the film as a reflection in the window of a San Francisco smoke shop. The narrator’s voice tells us, “In the year 1802, Thomas De Quincey came to London . . . Some 100 years later, I, Gilbert De Quincey, came to San Francisco on my search.” This De Quincey, unlike his author ancestor, is no “opium-eating” aesthete, but a seaman adventurer, a hero-mercenary, like the character Welles plays in The Lady from Shanghai. De Quincey, we learn, has been hired by one faction of the Tongs, the slave auctioneers, to aid them in their battle against another faction who seek to end the slave trade. He meets with the owner of an antique shop, Ching Foon, who tells him to report to Ruby Low, the beautiful public representative of Lin Tang, an evil mastermind whom no one ever sees.

Confessions’ labyrinthine plot serves to guide us through a labyrinthine dream space. From the antique shop with its carved demons, De Quincey goes to a funeral parlor where he meets (and is instantly attracted to) the film’s femme fatale, Ruby Low (Linda Ho). Ruby Low is mourning the death of her arch-enemy, a crusading newspaper editor. De Quincey, investigating on his own, breaks into the newspaper editor’s office and finds a panel in a closet leading to a secret room where the rescued slave girl is hidden and cared for by Ching Foon, the same enigmatic character who appeared earlier to be working for the slavers. As evil hatchet-bearing Tongs break into the outer office, De Quincey decides to save the girl. Another panel leads to a hidden elevator that takes the pair to an underground sewer. Every location in the film seems to have a dreamlike connection with every other location, and the transition from antique shop to funeral parlor to newspaper office to secret hideaway to elevator to sewer is like a descent into ever-deepening levels of the dream state. The next step is oblivion – at the sewer De Quincey and the girl fight with more evil Tongs who knock De Quincey unconscious.

De Quincey wakes up in a sort of costume warehouse, hung up on a meat hook, being interrogated by two men wearing masks. (Masks are a major motif in this film, both visually and in the dialogue.) One of them turns out to be Ching Foon, now clearly a leader of the good guys, who wants to know where Price’s character stands. The interrogators disappear. De Quincey descends, this time by ladder, to another level where slave girls are kept in suspended bamboo cages. Here he meets an aging Chinese midget “sing-song girl” who will become his chief ally. (This character, like the carnival midget in The Incredible Shrinking Man, is treated with great affection and compassion.) Freeing the midget and another woman from their cages, De Quincey attempts to find a way out. He peers through slats into another room where women are being washed and prepared for the slave auction. His point of view through the slats (a repeated motif) is like a natural letterbox frame allowing Zugsmith and his cameraman to create some of the film’s most beautiful and ornate compositions. De Quincey discovers a secret entrance to an opium den.

At this point the film gets seriously weird. In order to avoid suspicion, De Quincey is forced to smoke an opium pipe. This triggers an experimental montage sequence, a parade of images seen through a whirlpool of smoke, demon masks, a crawling hand, a serpent, the yawning mouth of a crocodile that dissolves into the optically distorted face of Ruby Low. Other characters’ faces dissolve into images of swordfish, tarantulas, jungle cats, and monsters from American International Pictures’ stock footage library, while throughout we hear Vincent Price’s sonorous voice, “Was this opium, or was this reality?”

This is followed by an even more amazing sequence. Still unsure that he is dreaming, De Quincey wakes up surrounded by Tong thugs. He rises in slow motion (the entire sequence is shot in silent slow motion to convey his quasi-dream state) and crashes soundlessly through a window, sliding down a roof. Hatchets are thrown. Guns are soundlessly fired. Breaking into an upstairs restaurant, De Quincey races, in silent slow motion, past a grinning cook decapitating a pig, a piano player soundlessly playing his piano. A single word is heard on the soundtrack, a man’s voice yelling, “H-e-l-p-!!!” A cockatoo screams. De Quincey is chased off another roof, plunging once more into unconsciousness.

He wakes up, bound to a bed, staring into the exquisitely lovely face of Ruby Low. (As she splashes water in his face, the film optically ripples to convey the subjective effect.) Disturbed by their mutual erotic attraction, Ruby attempts to justify her position, indicating a room full of material treasures, gold, jewelry, and opium. There is another failed escape attempt, and De Quincey wakes up in one of the bamboo slave cages with his ally, the midget.

From here, Confessions’ plot whirls and eddies toward its conclusion, punctuated by pseudo-Asian wisdom in the dialogue and startling Zugsmithian imagery. A slave woman is seen drowned in a man-sized fish tank, her neck tied to a concrete weight. Another woman, forced to dance at the slave auction, is revealed to be completely bald. Most memorable of all, visually speaking, are the scenes involving the bamboo slave cages. Suspended by a mechanical transportation system, they can be raised or lowered, or go rattling down black corridors to god-knows-where. Given the film’s immersion in Eastern philosophy, the hanging cages serve as a metaphor for the soul’s imprisonment in the world of physical appetites. At one point, De Quincey briefly clasps the hand of a young girl in an adjoining cage before she is transported to the auction. The image of De Quincey alone in his cage, seen from the girl’s point of view as she is mechanically hauled away, is both bizarre and poignant.

Disguises are shed. An “old man” at the slave auction turns out to be the crusading newspaper editor, previously thought to be dead. The evil mastermind Lin Tang appears. Unmasked, he turns out to be De Quincey’s lover/nemesis, Ruby Low. The film ends back in the underground sewer with De Quincey and Ruby Low holding onto each as rushing currents carry them into the dark unknown. It is an archetypal dream image of Male & Female, Good & Evil, East & West, Yang & Yin, locked in eternal embrace.

Although not of the same genre, Confessions of an Opium Eater shares with The Incredible Shrinking Man a common narrative structure. In both films a man literally descends into a world of ever-increasing strangeness. We see him finally in the process of breaking through and out of that world, heading toward a highly uncertain future.

I look forward to the day when some enterprising programmer puts together a complete retrospective of Zugsmith’s film work. Faces, incidents, and imagery would tend to blend together like one long opium dream.