The Million Eyes of Sumuru/Girl From Rio BD Double-Feature BD Review (Originally Published 2016)
Blue Underground is mostly known for their grindhouse and exploitation output, but Bill Lustig’s company has journeyed outside of its comfort zone on occasion with arthouse favourites, like Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim (1965) and Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979), and documentaries, like Danielle Franco & Chris Kenneally’s Crazy Legs Conti (2007). Their latest double-feature Blu-ray enters the realm of post-James Bond ‘Eurospy’ craze. A great many Eurospy flicks were produced by Italian filmmakers, who were attempting to tap into the next ‘big thing’ as the popularity of the peplum (sword & sandal) genre wound down (they’d find greater success with spaghetti westerns around the same time). British filmmakers were also quick to cash-in on Bond’s popularity, which was their right, considering the superspy’s country of origin.
British producer/screenwriter Harry Alan Towers entered the Eurospy fray when he co-wrote and produced Robert Lynn’s Mozambique (1964) and Code 7, Victim 5 (1964). Then, following the success of his pulp-inspired, Christopher Lee-starring Fu Manchu series (The Face of Fu Manchu, 1965; The Brides of Fu Manchu, 1966; The Vengeance of Fu Manchu, 1967; The Blood of Fu Manchu, 1968); The Castle of Fu Manchu, 1969), he produced two movies featuring Fu Manchu’s female counterpart, Sumuru, who was also invented by author Sax Rohmer. The Sumuru movies – Lindsay Shonteff’s The Million Eyes of Sumuru and Jess Franco’s The Girl from Rio – were slightly sexier than the Fu Manchu series, were endowed with flashier ‘60s comic book fashion (perhaps inspired by the Batman TV series), and made to fit the Eurospy movement. Both movies featured one-time Bond Girl Shirley Eaton (she played Jill Masterson in Goldfinger, 1964) as Sumuru.
The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)
A beautiful, but deadly woman named Sumuru (Shirley Eaton) executes a plan to eliminate all the world’s male leaders and replace them with sexy undercover female operatives. When a couple of wise-cracking, swingin’ secret agents uncover her scheme, they rush to Hong Kong and enlist the local police to stop her army of assassins known as The Million Eyes of Sumuru. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
While The Million Eyes of Sumuru was definitely developed to cash-in on Bond mania and the revival of a certain pulp villain, Towers wasn’t going to rest the first movie in a new franchise on only two trends, so he also hired wholesome teen heartthrob Frankie Avalon as his lead. Avalon was the star of American International Pictures’ goofy Beach Party series, which itself sort of morphed into its own Bond spoof, Norman Taurog’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965). With a teen audience ensured, Towers tossed a scenery-devouring Klaus Kinski and a subpar Bob Eubanks stand-in named George Nader for good measure. These attempts to appeal to the widest audience possible leaves the film too overstuffed to work on the same level as a more focused pulp spoof, a Eurospy flick, or even a standalone Frankie Avalon vehicle. The narrative is garbled to the degree that significant plot points occur between scenes, probably because the script was in flux and there was no time to shoot coverage. Towers and co-writer Kevin Kavanagh’s attempts to divide their story between Avalon, Nader, and Eaton requires wild tonal flips, unexplained story developments, and dead-end subplots – most of which involve Avalon. It’s charming, but also exhausting, especially where Nader’s terrible comic timing is concerned.
As a character, Sumuru is certainly a less offensive Yellow Peril villain than Fu Manchu, in large part because Shonteff, Towers, and co-writer Kevin Kavanagh are more focused on pushing sexual boundaries than exploiting cultural stereotypes. It also helps that Eaton isn’t donning yellow-face. Despite the specter of racism, the stylishly over-the-top scenes centering on the villainess’ Amazonian cabal (which includes the always fabulous Maria Rohm) are lightyears ahead of the rest of the film. It’s no wonder that Eaton became the basis for the franchise over her unfunny male counterparts. Shonteff, who got in his pulp horror practice when he made Devil Doll (1964) and Curse of Voodoo (1965), and who dipped his toes into the Bond rip-off pool with a spoof called The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World (aka: License to Kill, 1965), has more fun with the colourful costumes and Shaw Bros. studio sets than he does on the Hong Kong street locations, where Avalon scurries around the peripherals of the bigger story. Despite its B-movie origins, the director and his crew try to shoot The Million Eyes of Sumuru as if it were a big studio production. Unfortunately, their carefully orchestrated images are constantly undermined by the jumbled editing, a lack of coverage, and weak action/stunt choreography. It’s definitely a handsome production, but, widescreen framing aside, there isn’t much separating it from middle-late ‘60s action-based television.
The Million Eyes of Sumuru hasn’t had an official North American digital release as far as I know. It was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I suppose that it might be part of a home video collection, but the only DVD I can find any specs for is an anamorphic German release with no English track or subtitles. I assume that Blue Underground got the HD scan they used for this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer from the same (or a similar) StudioCanal source. The results are not unlike Kino Lorber’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs. The image is a little soft and flat, but basic details are still tighter than a SD could manage. Alongside general grain are some digital artefacts, like snowy noise and posterization that could be the results of DNR enhancement. Still, the edges are hard, elements are neatly separated, contrast levels are subtle, and black level support is solid. Despite a slight yellowing, colors are consistent and the harsher acrylic hues (mostly reds, blues, and greens) pop beautifully.
The original mono sound is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The lack of compression does wonders for the louder moments, which show few signs of distortion. There are inconsistencies between scenes in terms of dialogue quality, though the differences almost always pertain to location noise, i.e. outdoor scenes are a bit muffled and the larger sets are echo-y. There were apparently two different scores written for The Million Eyes of Sumuru – one by Johnny Scott and the other by Daniel White. I’m honestly not sure which one I listened to, but assume that the constant stream of swinging ‘60s jazz belongs to White, who returned for the sequel.
Poster & still gallery
The Girl from Rio (1969)
Sumuru (Shirley Eaton) launches a diabolical plan to enslave the male species with her army of lusty warrior women. But, when she kidnaps a fugitive American playboy, she crosses a sadistic crime boss (George Sanders) and ignites a battle of the sexes that will bring Brazil to its knees... in more ways than one. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
Sumuru’s second adventure (under the name Sumitra, in the English version), The Girl from Rio (German: Die sieben Männer der Sumuru; aka: Rio 70, Mothers of America, and The Seven Secrets of Sumuru) tosses the first film’s carefully constructed wide audience pacification out the window – along with Avalon and Nader’s characters – and fully embraces the sexy, spaced-out avant-garde tone that director Jess Franco was so well known for. The first film may’ve dabbled in S&M and featured a twinge of implied/from-the-back nudity, but, under Franco’s watchful eye, the Girl from Rio goes all-in from the very first frame. Sumuru’s lady soldiers smother men to death with kisses and high-heel boots, she engages in (relatively chaste) lesbian liaisons, and every actress (except Eaton) appears contractually obligate to show their breasts. The fashionably outré imagery is about as far from Shonteff’s utilitarian attempts at budget action as one can get while still basically existing in the same cinematic universe. Towers is the only credited writer this time, though it’s likely he only supplied Franco with a rough outline (perhaps even the script from the original film) before setting him loose. Whereas Million Eyes of Sumuru struggles between mismatched genres, The Girl from Rio’s tonal shifts and disparate elements blend into one groovy and impressionistic oddity that transcends the nonsense plotting, terminally unfunny jokes, and stifled central male performance (Richard Wyler isn’t much better than George Nader).
Franco’s interest levels clearly wane when he’s dealing with plot and action (every fight scene begins with awesome stand-offs, but always end in over-zoomed, rickety fisticuffs), which puts Girl From Rio well below his best and most personal work (most of which he actually made for Towers), especially funnier satires, like Marquis de Sade: Justine (1968), and psychedelic freak shows, like Vampyros Lesbos (1970). The utter lack of budget is sometimes painfully obvious in the use of existing locations, instead of the first film’s beautifully designed sets. That said, even at his worst, Franco really knows how to shoot a location (with a bit of editing, this film could double as a travelogue) and leeches the city of Rio for every penny it’s worth, and the few major set pieces his team [i]were[/i] able to install (mostly Sumuru’s interrogation chamber) are adorable, Barbarella-esque pop-art. Oh, and the women’s costumes are to die for – there are at least a dozen A+ Halloween costume options for the discerning Euro-cult fan.
Blue Underground released The Girl From Rio on anamorphic DVD way back in 2004 (there was also another German DVD from Kino). This 1.66:1, 1080p Blu-ray debut is a big upgrade over that compressed and overly-dark transfer, to the point that I assume it was sourced from a completely different scan. The image has some of the same issues as the Sumuru transfer, including uneven, bandy gradations and signs of DNR, but there aren’t as many signs of machine noise – to the contrary, most of the artifacts look like proper film grain. Franco and cinematographer Manuel Merino’s use of soft focus and foggy atmosphere certainly doesn’t lend itself to the sharpest edges, either, so there’s no reason to complain about the general lack of hard contrast and tight textures. The broader details, though mushy by design, are much more complex than their DVD counterparts. The greatest upgrade, however, is in color quality, especially during Franco’s hyper-sexual neon and pastel tableaus.
The original mono English dub, presented here in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, is more consistent than its Million Eyes of Sumuru counterpart, probably because it was shot without sound and dubbed into various languages. Most of the cast appears to be speaking English, so the lack of German and Spanish tracks isn’t a tragedy. Most of the track is dialogue-driven, but there are some lively location sounds and sci-fi effects peppered throughout. Daniel White’s second Sumuru score (assuming I was listening to his score and not Johnny Scott’s earlier) fits the Brazilian locales with loads of jazzy horns and Tito Puente-esque percussion.
Rolling in Rio (14:20, SD) – These interviews with Franco, Towers, Shirley Eaton were originally recorded for Blue Underground’s DVD release. The discussion surrounds Eaton being miserable without her children, George Sanders’ depressive state during filming, the extended footage shot from the Carnival celebration, and the other films Franco shot for Towers in the same year.
Poster & still gallery
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