What attracted me first to CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER (1962) was the poster.
Our story, courteous reader, begins in late November of 2008. I was in Framingham, Massachusetts, working on the production of a meeting for pharmaceutical sales reps. Sure, it sounds glamorous, but this event was really no different than any of the dozens of other similar events I’ve worked on over the last two decades. No, what was unique about this project was not the meeting itself, but rather the event that was loading in to the hotel as we were loading out.
It was a memorabilia show.
If you’re not familiar with convention culture, a “memorabilia show” is a collectibles expo that attracts (mostly) paunchy, middle-aged men who feel the need to fill their homes with obscure artifacts of American popular culture.
I can speak from an informed perspective about this subset of society, because I am one of them.
And so, late on that chilly Thursday afternoon, I decided not to check out of the Sheraton Framingham, but rather to extend my visit for two nights. And then I called my girlfriend.
“How would you like to spend a lovely weekend in Massachusetts?” I asked.
“Sure,” Maggie said, with her typical good nature, ignoring my unaccustomed use of the word lovely. “But why?”
“Well, it’s so nice up here,” I replied. “The leaves are pretty…”
“What leaves?” she interrupted. “It’s almost December.”
“Well, sure, there are no leaves anymore,” I said. “But they were nice when they were here, and many of them are still on the ground…”
“Did you get arrested again?” Maggie interrupted. (The “again” is a long story which I’ll share at another time.)
“Of course not,” I said. “I just thought it would be fun to spend a romantic weekend together in Framingham. And, if we also got a chance to go to a memorabilia show, well, that would be an extra added benefit.”
The next afternoon, I picked Maggie up in a cab at the Amtrak station.
“You’re gonna owe me big time for this,” she said, right as always.
That night we had a lovely, romantic dinner at Molly Malone’s, the sports bar at the Sheraton. (I highly recommend the hot wings and chocolate lava cake.) And the next morning we were among the first to enter the “Super Mega Show” when the doors opened at 9:30 a.m.
The poster caught my eye almost immediately. I’ve long since stopped collecting most sorts of memorabilia, but my weakness for movie posters continues unabated. The one-bedroom New York City apartment I share with Maggie currently boasts 24 posters of varying sizes on the walls, all of them originals, and most of them featuring women in some sort of peril. This appears to be of great concern to Maggie’s friends, which may explain why they don’t visit more.
Maggie likes my (I mean our) movie posters – or, at least, she tolerates them – as long as they’re colorful and artistic. We’ve found that horror and science fiction titles from the 1950s and ‘60s tend to be the best compromise – I like the movies and she likes the art. And anything with Vincent Price is always a plus. In fact, three different images of Price are staring back at me as I write this.
So there we were in the ballroom at the Sheraton, flipping through a collection of 27” x 41” one-sheets, wrapped in plastic and stabilized with cardboard backing. And there he was – Vincent Price, in a brilliantly colorful poster for a 1962 film called CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER.
“Wait. Is that a pipe in his hand,” Maggie asked, noticing that Price was brandishing a piece of paraphernalia not typically used for smoking tobacco.
It was. And that was of particular interest to Maggie, for reasons I will allow you to interpret on your own.
“Okay, we have to get this,” she said.
When my non-collector girlfriend tells me we have to buy a movie-related collectible, that’s pretty much all I need to hear. Plus, the fact that a poster depicting Vincent Price doing drugs was for sale in the same room my pharma meeting had been in was an irony too delightful to ignore.
And, to seal the deal, the poster featured women in peril – not just peril, but locked in a cage. I bought the one-sheet on the spot, even though I had never seen (or even heard of) the movie.
I’d like to tell you that we went home and immediately watched CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER, but that was impossible. No DVD was listed on Amazon and no streaming copy was available on Netflix. Turner Classic Movies had only sketchy details on the film, and no scheduled airdates. I couldn’t even find a bootleg on eBay .
For four years, I looked at that poster every day, yet the film it was advertising remained a complete mystery to me.
But now, thanks to a new DVD from the Warner Archive Collection, the mystery has been solved. And I’m happy to report that the film is even odder and more compelling than its poster.
The first thing to point out about CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER is, there is no “opium eating” in the movie. There is a scene where the drug is smoked from a pipe like the one depicted on the poster, but it’s very brief. And soldier of fortune Gabriel De Quincey (Vincent Price) only imbibes to protect his cover, as he endeavors to rescue young Asian women held captive by human traffickers for auctioning to wealthy men (who pay with opium).
So, what’s up with the title?
CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM EATER, the book upon which the film is based, is largely about the author’s use of opium, initially as self-medication for a variety of chronic physical ailments. Journalist Thomas De Quincey published the autobiographical work in 1821 and, for years, the book was infamous as one of the only first-person narratives about substance abuse. As such, it was condemned for glorifying drug use, though the author does devote an entire section of the book to the “pains of opium” and the negative effects it had on his life. De Quincey died in 1859 and is buried in…Framingham, Massachusetts! (Just kidding. Actually Edinburgh, Scotland.)
I’ve not read the book, but it’s pretty clear that the movie has nothing to do with it – other than borrowing its title and the last name of the author. Price (at age 51) plays Gilbert De Quincey, a tattooed mercenary and “student of Chinese philosophy” in early 20th Century San Francisco. And, despite the presence of a leading man famous for his work in fright films (he starred in three Roger Corman Poe films in 1961-62 alone), CONFESSIONS is not really a horror movie. It’s an odd amalgam of noir (complete with Chandleresque narration by Price), exploitation (not surprising, considering that producer/director Albert Zugsmith’s canon also includes SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE), and counter-culture drug film, with some spooky skeletons and Oriental mysticism thrown in for good measure.
When I hear the term “exploitation film” I get an image of something cheaply produced, meant to cash in on a current fad or prurient topic. Allied Artists distributed plenty of films just like that in the 1960s, but this isn’t one of them. Although clearly produced on a limited budget, CONFESSIONS is a stylish, inventive film, with a complex script by Robert Hill, filled with noir-ish twists, turns and double-crosses. And it gives us a Vincent Price I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: tough-talking, ass-kicking action hero.
The film opens on a rocky beach, with Albert Glasser’s delightfully spooky score and Price’s narration:
“I am De Quincey. I dream, and I create dreams. Out of the opium pipe, I see sailing into our vision a junk. It’s cargo: women – women bought or stolen from all over the mysterious Orient. Their destination, and mine: the human auctions in Chinatown.”
In a creepy, dialogue-free opening sequence, young women are dragged violently from the cargo hold of a schooner, loaded into a net and dropped onto the deck of an awaiting skiff. A few of them appear to be unconscious or dead. On the beach, crusading journalist George Wah (Richard Loo) and his men attempt to rescue the prisoners, but they’re beaten back by the traffickers. A rival Chinese gang arrives and begins shooting, Wah is killed, and the human cargo is spirited away to Chinatown.
There we meet Price’s Gilbert De Quincey (ostensibly Thomas De Quincey’s descendant, though no explanation of lineage is offered). A newspaper boy (three-foot-tall tall Angelo Rossitto, who led the “gooble gobble” chant in 1934’s FREAKS) announces the headline of the day – a tong war by rival gangs over the auctions of so-called “picture brides” imported from the Asia. Accompanied by hilariously portentous narration, De Quincey meets Ching Foon (Phillip Ahn) and Ruby Lo (Linda Ho, who would have made an excellent Bond Girl), ostensible ringleaders of the gang selling the brides. Ruby informs Gilbert that a rival tong has stolen Lotus (June Kim), the “prize girl” of the last shipment, and that the big boss wants him to “take care of troublemakers.”
Gilbert breaks into the offices of the Chinatown Gazette, and finds Lotus holed up in a hidden room, fearing for her life. Instead of bringing her back to Ruby Lo, he tries to sneak her to safety through a secret underground tunnel, but he’s beaten back by Ching Foon. Neither man (nor, frankly, the viewer) is completely sure of where the other’s allegiances lie.
“Good and evil often walk the same road, hand in hand in the same person,” Ching Foon tells De Quincey, in one of many pieces of fortune cookie wisdom. De Quincey escapes down to the dungeons, where he finds previously sold brides who have been rejected by their new husbands, locked in cages and left to starve. A “pretty Chinese midget” called Child (Yvonne Moray, a veteran of THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN) explains to him why they are there:
“When wife dead, husband can marry again,” she says in slightly-less-than-believable broken English. “They no kill us, just don’t give us food. If they kill, then our ghost would haunt always.”
Child shows De Quincey where the new arrivals are being bathed in preparation for auction. He attempts a rescue, but instead stumbles into the opium den, where he is forced to hit the pipe, lest his true mission be discovered.
“Finally!” Maggie proclaimed, as we watched the Warner Archive DVD. “Some opium. This part should be good.”
Sadly, it’s not. The ninety-second opium trip is actually the weakest, most unintentionally funny sequence in an otherwise very enjoyable film.
“Do people really see alligators, tigers and bears when they’re tripping on opium?” Maggie asked. “What is this THE WIZARD OF OZ?”
Lacking personal experience with opium (both eating and smoking), I was unable to answer from an informed perspective.
Just like in Framingham, what’s most interesting about De Quincey’s trip in CONFESSIONS is what happens after it. When he “awakens” from his opium-induced haze the soundtrack is silent, and everything moves in slow motion as he tries to escape the members of the tong.
“Was this opium? Or was it reality?” Price asks, in voiceover. For me, this begged the obvious question: does the action in the remainder of the film actually happen or is it all just part of his “trip”?
Whichever it is, Gilbert manages to infiltrate the human auction, and facilitate a rescue. But things don’t end well for our hero. Or do they?
While I may not be sure about how CONFESIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER actually ends, one thing is certain: the 1:66 transfer on the Warner Archive DVD is flawless. For a title that’s been mostly unavailable for half a century, it’s a nice surprise to see it looking so crisp, particularly considering that the film was not restored or re-mastered for this release. The audio is mono and, as with most manufacture-on-demand DVDs, special features are non-existent. But you can watch the original trailer here.
In retrospect, CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER may have been a catchy title, but it’s not really an accurate one. The film was reissued as SOULS FOR SALE, which does a better job of capturing both the human trafficking storyline and the existential themes of mind alteration – soon to be a zeitgeist topic back in 1962. But under either title, I recommend it.
Since I still owe my girlfriend for being kind enough to make the trip up to Massachusetts, and allowing me to have the hottest girl in the room on my arm, I’ll let her have the last word:
“Honestly, I didn’t understand what was going on,” Maggie said after we watched our long-awaited DVD of CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER. “Make sure you tell your readers not to watch it when they’re high. They’ll be thoroughly confused.”
How she knows that with such certainty I will allow you to interpret on your own.