Saturday, June 23, 1973: Mr. Sardonicus (1961) / Ambush in Leopard Street (1962)

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Synopsis: In London of 1880, Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is a surgeon renowned for his groundbreaking medical techniques. He is called away from his research hospital when he receives a letter from Maude (Audrey Dalton), a woman he loved but who rejected him years before because her family did not believe he had sufficient prospects. Maude’s letter tells him that she is now married to Baron Sardonicus and is living in the far-flung country of Gorslava. She says that she and the Baron have read of Sir Robert’s success in advanced medicine, and implores him to visit immediately — on an urgent mission, she says, that has a direct impact on her own well-being.

Soon, Sir Robert arrives in Gorslava, and takes up residence in the castle of Baron Sardonicus. Maude is kind and affable, and does not seem to be in difficulty. But the maid in the house lives in terror of Sardonicus’ cruel dogsbody
Krull, who has a tendency to tie her up and attach leeches to her as punishment.

Cargrave meets Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) who is well-mannered but aloof. The most striking thing about Sardonicus is that he wears a porcelain mask at all times and does not dine with his guest, though he joins Sir Robert and Maude at the dinner table for conversation.

At dinner the subject turns to Shakespeare, and Cargrave describes Iago as a “ghoul”. This catches the interest of Sardonicus who says that a “ghoul” is a creature that opens graves and feeds on the corpses inside. The concept seems to be of great importance to Sardonicus, and later he explains why.

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He tells Sir Robert that years ago, he was a penniless man. His elderly father occasionally wasted money on lottery tickets. After his father died, he discovered that the last ticket his father purchased had won a vast sum. After a frantic search, he realized that the ticket was tucked away in a pocket of the clothes in which his father had been buried. Knowing that desecrating a grave is a great evil, he nevertheless went to the cemetery and dug up his father’s coffin. Opening it up, he saw the muscles of his father’s face pulled back in a horrible rictus. Stricken by the sight, he nevertheless was able to grab the winning ticket and stumble home, only to find that his own face was now permanently frozen in an inhuman grin.

Sardonicus goes on to explain that he used the lottery winnings to buy a castle and style himself as a Baron; nevertheless he wants more than anything else to be cured of his affliction. He asks Sir Robert to use his specialized skills and techniques to find a way to return him to normal. Sir Robert is unwilling at first, saying that such a procedure would carry great risks. But Sardonicus will not be deterred, and threatens to mutilate Maude’s face if he refuses….

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Comments: Just as Hammer’s Scream of Fear was a knockoff of Psycho, so William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus is a knockoff of Hammer’s own successful Gothic horror pictures. This being a William Castle production however, it’s louder, sloppier and dumber than even the lowliest of Hammer thrillers.

This is not to say that Mr. Sardonicus isn’t fun. It’s actually pretty lively and agreeably lurid in the manner of all Castle’s films.  There’s something charming in the way that Castle pushes certain images in your face for shock value — as when Cargraves bursts through a door and we get a close-up of the maid with leeches stuck to her face, or the big moment when Sardonicus takes off his mask to reveal the absurd grinning face, so overdone you can’t imagine an audience not laughing at it.

It’s hard to say if “camp” was the vibe William Castle was going for, but camp is what we end up with here. If it wasn’t for that, Castle’s films would largely be forgotten today, the famed gimmicks notwithstanding.

The early parts of the movie follow the template of Dracula, with Cargrave arriving in an eastern European village by stagecoach. Telling the local innkeeper he’s waiting for a private coach from Baron Sardonicus, the old man’s eyes widen in fright. “Baron Sardonicus!” he gasps. When Cargrave asks why he is so frightened, the innkeeper says  that the newcomer wouldn’t understand. “You do not have….daughters,” he whispers gravely.

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We never really find out what he means by this. There is a scene where Krull brings a bevy of attractive young women for a “party”, cut short when Sardonicus chooses a young blonde woman and sends the others away. He removes his mask, showing his true face to her and she screams in terror. But the scene ends there and we never find out what happens to any of the women he selects. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the scene except a) to pad the running time, and b) to underline how bad a dude he really is. Yet it doesn’t make sense; if Sardonicus is notorious for preying on the daughters of the (presumably sparse) local population, where does this apparently inexhaustible supply of beautiful young women come from? Not one of them seems the least bit apprehensive about being invited to his castle. How could that be true, if everyone in the village turns pale at the mere mention of his name, and the “winning” girl at each party is never seen or heard from again?

Equally inexplicable is the Sardonicus backstory. We’re told that he was a lowly peasant who gained his fortune via the winning lottery ticket held by his late father. Presumably he then bought a castle, and within a few years established had himself as a nobleman — with enough legitimacy that he could attract a well-bred Englishwoman like Maude as his bride.

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Nothing in this origin story makes sense. Just how much was this lottery ticket worth, anyway? Are there lots of castles sitting around on Gorslava’s real estate market? Are frightened villagers included with the property? Where, exactly, did Sardonicus acquire his evident taste and good manners? His story is clearly modeled on that of the Count of Monte Cristo, but at least Edmund Dantes’ background made sense.

As in many of his pictures, Castle himself appears on-screen at the beginning of the film, introducing it in a way somewhat reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock in episodes of his TV series and movie trailers (though Hitchcock never introduced the films themselves, appearing on-camera only as an extra). Castle seems to be greatly enjoying himself in these scenes, but I’m not sure the audience delighted in his appearances as much as he imagined they did.

The gimmick in this one was the “Punishment Poll”, in which the audience got to decide the fate of Mr. Sardonicus. Audience members were given a card that they could hold up to indicate “thumbs up” (if they wanted Sardonicus to receive mercy for his crimes at the end of the picture) or “thumbs down” (if they wanted Sardonicus to be punished). The “poll”, of course, was a cheat — Castle had only filmed one ending. He guessed — correctly, I assume — that the audience would want Sardonicus to suffer a gruesome and ironic punishment for his transgressions.

We saw Guy Rolfe recently in The Stranglers of Bombay, and he’s pretty effective despite his face being covered with the mask and then the makeup for most of the picture.

You might remember Ronald Lewis from Scream of Fear, playing the evil chauffeur. Lewis had a fairly busy film career but couldn’t seem to establish himself either as a lead or character actor; perhaps he was not memorable enough to be the former, and not interesting enough to be the latter.  His career languished badly through the 1970s, and he committed suicide at age 53.

Audrey Dalton enjoyed a happier career, and is still around today; she appeared in the 1953 version of Titanic, as well as My Cousin Rachel (1952) with Olivia DeHavilland.

Oscar Homolka received top billing in this one; he was a familiar character actor of the time and specialized in playing Europeans of all stripes. He earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in 1948 for his turn in I Remember Mama.

 

Ambush in Leopard Street

Synopsis: Small-time criminal Harry (Michael Brennan) has been tipped off to a potential big score, far bigger than anything he’s ever been involved in. A half a million pounds’ worth of cut diamonds are due to be shipped across London by a boutique jeweler as part of a commission. Harry teams up with old cronies Nimmo (Bruce Seton) and Danny (Lawrence Crain), and outside man Kegs (Norman Rodway). Together they draw up a plan to ambush the van carrying the diamonds at its most vulnerable point  — while it’s on the narrow, secluded Leopard Street.

Harry knows the cargo and he knows the route. The only thing he doesn’t know is exactly when the shipment will be moved. In order to find out, Harry recruits his brother-in-law Johnny, a good-looking kid with an insouciant charm and a clean record. Harry plans to arrange a chance meeting between Johnny and Jean (Jean Harvey), a lonely secretary who works for the jeweler.  Johnny’s task is to start up a romance, and get her to spill the beans about the date of the shipment.

Harry’s wife Cath is angry at him for dragging her kid brother into his seedy business, but Harry insists that the payoff will be enough to set the kid up for whatever in life he wants to do. Anyway, he promises, this is his last job.

Johnny is successful in winning over the romantically gun-shy Jean, but as the two grow closer he begins to have second thoughts. Is he really starting to fall for her? And if so, can he go through with the deception?

Meanwhile, Nimmo gets beat up by thugs working for Big George, a gangster further up the food chain. Big George has decided he’s going to take the diamonds from under Harry’s nose, and he’s not above kidnapping Harry’s daughter in order to make sure he gets his way….

Comments: Ambush In Leopard Street isn’t the first crime drama to be broadcast on Horror Incorporated, but the ones that we’ve seen so far (like The Island Monster or The Face Behind the Mask) at least featured a recognizable horror star. Tonight we have a low-budget British heist picture, with no stars at all.

I’m sorry to report there are no leopards in it either.

Giving the film a fair assessment isn’t easy; the only extant version seems to be a 57-minute DVD release from Renown —  16 minutes shorter than the original theatrical cut. I suspect that’s why the plot seems as choppy as it does.

But I don’t need the extra 16 minutes to tell you that the plot is simple – perhaps too simple – and director J. Henry Piperno fails to provide even the slightest spark of visual interest. The interior sets are dingy and uninteresting with only the most rudimentary lighting; and the frame compositions are pedestrian and unimaginative.

In Piperno’s favor, the focus on small-time London hoods has real potential, and the actors are generally doughy and unattractive — that is to say, they look like real people, not movie stars. On top of this, the street scenes (actually shot in Ireland) lend credibility to this story about the criminal bottom-feeders in London’s rougher quarters. In the hands of a more talented director Ambush In Leopard Street might have been a raw, documentary-like thriller, but the movie tries to follow the template of better-known heist pictures of the 1950s. There’s just not enough suspense to make it work. As a result it comes off as plodding and dull.

There are also a number of plot holes that dog the movie from the start. There’s no real reason to think Harry’s plan should work, since it hinges on a number of factors he can’t control: that Jean knows the precise timing of the shipment, that a novice con man like Johnny will be able to wheedle the information out of her, that the van wouldn’t take an alternate route or change the schedule at the last moment.

For that matter, sending two guys in a van seems an extremely risky way to carry what would be equivalent today to $9.6 million in diamonds. It seems likely that, even in 1962, the shipment would be outsourced to couriers in an armored car.

This was a rare starring role for Michael Brennan, an extremely prolific actor who usually played thugs and bartenders. He was in Thunderball and played a club fighter in “The Girl Who Was Death”, an episode of TV’s The Prisoner.

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One comment

  1. The grinning visage of MR. SARDONICUS was based on Conrad Veidt’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS. AMBUSH IN LEOPARD STREET remains an obscurity.

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