El cuarto chino [The Chinese Room]

(Famous Players Corp.-CLASA Films Mundiales-Sagitario Films, 1966)* Exec Prod: Armando Le Molle, Joseph Carlyle; Prod: Felipe Subervielle, Rafael Lebrija; Dir/Scr: Albert Zugsmith; Orig Novel: Vivian Connell; Photo: Gabriel Figueroa; Music: Gustavo C. Carrión; Blues: Joe Greene; Prod Mgr: Luis García de León; Prod Chief: Antonio G. Tello; Asst Dir: Jesús Marín; Film Ed: Juan José Marino; Art Dir: Manuel Fontanals; Decor: Rafael Suárez; Camera Op: Manuel González; Sound Rec: Jesús González G.; Music/Re-rec: Galdino Samperio; Sound Ed: José Li-Ho; Union: STPC

* (c) 1967, a US-Mexican co-production

CAST: Guillermo Murray (Dr. Manuel Saluby), Elizabeth Campbell (Muriel Vidal), Carlos Rivas (Nicolás Vidal), Regina Torné (Sidonia Campos), Cathy Crosby, Germán Robles (Pedro Martínez), Gloria [Leticia] Ortiz (Consuelo Martínez), Jorge Rado (Juan Cervantes), Félix González (Lt. Alvarez), Carlos East (diver boyfriend of Consuelo)

NOTES: This is a fairly obscure film which does not appear in many reference books, even though it was shot in English by well-known Hollywood producer Albert Zugsmith (who later made El pistolero fantasma in Mexico). Zugsmith made a film entitled Psychopathia Sexualis (1966), also known as On Her Bed of Roses: the alternate title of this film is the same as one of the musical themes of The Chinese Room, but these are entirely different movies.

The Mexican version of The Chinese Room is dubbed into Spanish (Guillermo Murray does his own voice, but I'm not sure about the rest of the cast) but there are hints--such as a couple of odd, interpolated printed inserts and shots of some anonymous letters, both shown in English but translated in voiceover--about the film's origins.

It is odd that Zugsmith's cast is composed almost entirely of Mexican industry performers, with no Hollywood "names" (El pistolero fantasma had Troy Donahue, for example). Cathy Crosby, who had worked for Zugsmith before, is fifth-billed but unless she is one of the bikini-clad women in a brief party sequence, I cannot spot her in the Spanish-dubbed version (possibly she only appeared in the English-language version, perhaps in Gloria Ortiz's role?). The English-language The Chinese Room would be interesting to view, if only to hear people like Elizabeth Campbell, Guillermo Murray and Germán Robles speak English (Rivas, Rado and Torné can all be seen and heard in other English-language movies).

Overall, El cuarto chino is mildly entertaining--despite the annoying dubbing--with a few odd scenes, a good performance by Murray as a lecherous doctor, and Elizabeth Campbell at her absolute peak of attractiveness. However, the film can't quite decide what it is going to be: a flamboyant melodrama like those Zugsmith produced in Hollywood in the 1950s, a weird thriller with bizarre dream sequences, or--in its last third--a murder mystery.

Nick Vidal is the owner of a bank, taken over by his father in a shady business deal from the Cervantes family; Juan Cervantes still works for the bank, and claims he bears Nick no ill-will over the loss of his fortune. "Money is like a child that never grows up," Juan says, "you have to care for it all your life." Nick is having an affair with his secretary, the outwardly-repressed Sidonia.

At the luxurious seaside (Acapulco) Vidal home, Pedro the butler sees Consuelo--his daughter, and a maid in the household--trying to commit suicide by hanging. She is despondent over a failed love affair with Nick (which may exist only in her imagination). Dr. Saluby, called to attend to Consuelo, makes a pass at Nick's beautiful and neglected wife Muriel. Later, when Nick stands her up for dinner, Muriel drives to Saluby's office and they begin an affair.

Nick has been receiving mysterious notes on Cervantes Bank stationery. Attempting to trace their source, he visits Juan Cervantes' home, and is surprised to discover the man has a "Chinese room" to get away from the outside world. While there, he sees a woman--her face covered--in a drug-induced stupor. Cervantes says she comes there to escape from reality: ashamed of her deformed foot, she lives in constant fear and humiliation.

Nick has a series of nightmares. He dreams he is tied to a table and dismembered by Saluby, Cervantes, and Pedro (this is a gory scene, with the three white-faced men chopping away at big chunks of meat); Muriel dances with a skeleton; Nick is turned into a human clock pendulum, swinging upside down. He also begins sleep-walking. In the movie's funniest sequence, sex-starved Muriel sees Nick tossing and turning as he dreams; she puts on a sexy outfit and the second he awakes, screaming, she literally jumps on him! Later, she wakes up in bed nude (covered by a sheet, of course), but Nick has wandered off in a trance.

Consuelo is found hanging again, but this time she is dead. Lt. Alvarez tells Nick she was strangled, not hung: Nick is a suspect, since Consuelo left a note saying she was pregnant by him. Muriel, Cervantes, Sidonia, and Saluby are also suspects, since they were all in the Vidal home on the night Consuelo died. Nick says he'll make sure the real murderer is caught. That night, while Nick is apparently passed out drunk, someone comes into his room and tries to strangle him: it is Muriel, who was jealous that Consuelo was going to have Nick's baby.

The film ends with a shot of Muriel closing the titular novel and wiping away a tear (after the opening credits, there was a shot of her opening the book and periodically throughout the film there were closeups of her hands turning the pages).

The production values on El cuarto chino are adequate, although only a few scenes make any use of the Acapulco locations. Gabriel Figueroa's photography is, for him, undistinguished--there are a couple of random shots which are nice, but otherwise nothing special. As noted above, Elizabeth Campbell looks great, probably better than I have ever seen her and she is certainly showcased here (she even has her own musical theme, a sort of campy "sexy" tune, which might be the "On Her Bed of Roses" blues credited to Joe Greene). Carlos Rivas is given a license to overact and makes liberal use of it; Murray is OK although his character suddenly and unconvincingly changes from a sly lecher to a semi-serious hero in the final sequences; the rest of the cast is satisfactory, as well as can be determined in dubbed performances.

Overall, an oddity. Not bad, but not great either.

ADDITIONAL NOTES (Oct 2000): I received an e-mail from Finn Connell, one of the sons of the late Vivian Connell, author of the original novel. Mr. Connell told me that he recalled discussions in the late 1950s regarding the film rights to "The Chinese Room"--his father was interested in having Deborah Kerr play Sidonie (see the information below about the original novel), and was going to sell the rights to 20th Century-Fox. However, apparently Elizabeth Taylor became involved, Connell and she couldn't come to an agreement, and the proposed film was never made.

Vivian Connell (a man, just to clear up some confusion) was an Irish writer who wrote a number of novels and plays. "The Chinese Room" (1942) was his biggest popular success, selling over 3 million copies. It was reprinted a number of times in hardback and paperback. The New Republic (9 November 1942) review said, in part: "A curious novel about the private life of a British banker that functions on three levels: as a mystery, as a clinical study of the disintegration and reintegration of a marriage, and as a what-not shelf for the sexy and exotic."

I recently read the novel and while I could recognize traces of it in Zugsmith's film version, there are obviously many differences. The book is set in England and there is a fair amount of "local color." Nicholas Bude (not Vidal) is more prominent and sympathetic than his film counterpart, as is Sidonia (vs. Sidonie); Saluby in the book is revealed to be the villain as opposed to his heroic role in the movie! The book's "mystery" plot is slight: most of the novel concerns the sex lives of Muriel and Nicholas, and the impact of this on their emotional relationship (Connell's novel was compared to D.H. Lawrence in this respect). A number of significant characters in the novel are completely absent in the film, and the butler played by Germán Robles is a combination of several servants from the novel. The young woman who commits suicide (Consuelo in the film) is already dead when the novel begins.

A more faithful adaptation of the novel could have made a powerful film--Zugsmith used some of the characters, a few isolated aspects of the plot, the title, and not much else.

Posted 31 May 99, Revised 19 Oct 2000 by dwilt@umd.edu

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