Stranglers of Bombay, The (1959)
Cast: Guy Rolfe, Andrew Cruickshank, Allan Cuthbertson, George Pastell, Jan Holden
Director: Terence Fisher
Nutshell: strange reflection the Indian uprising against the colonials in a highly dubious if unintentional manner. Particularly fascinating if somewhat awkward is the very slanted depiction of everything Indian.
Stranglers of Bombay was first viewed at a stage when anything that had the Hammer brand was automatically an essential watch. There was a rather underwhelming feeling having watched it as a teenager but now that Indicator have issued another mouthwatering set of Hammer obscurity, a grown up reassessment was merited. The fact that Terence Fisher directed the movie and that George Pastell once again appeared as a “High Priest” was a considerable reason for a re-viewing of this 1959 Black and White feature.
A map of Bombay’s surrounding vicinity is shown to set the stage, the year being 1829 with the British Raj in control. Flustered tradesmen are taking up their complaint vociferously with the authorities in an emergency session. Their convoys of merchandise have been repeatedly looted by bandits and business has come to a standstill and thus any sort of revenue. According to reports and later we discover from some captured bandits that these murderous bandits are known as Thugees and are devoted to the Goddess Kali. The very same Goddess who is preached to in the opening scene by George Pastell, Hammers pre-eminent “evil foreign” dude, fresh from his take as virtually the identical character from The Mummy. Pastell and his followers are part of this evil cult that follows Kali and they murder in her name with a stylish twist of a silk saffron scarf, their lethal weapon. These thugees or thugs have managed to bring British commerce to a virtual standstill and Guy Rolfe is the overwrought and overworked officer in charge of putting a swift end to it.
Unfortunately, this meeting of the authorities with irate tradesmen has brought the matter to a head and just as Rolfe is making some significant inroads in his investigation, he is replaced by a ghastly ponce of a chap with the stiffest upper lip and smallest barely functioning brain. Rolfe continues his work but badly sidelined by the creep who is now in charge. Meanwhile the Thug attacks continue relentlessly with scores of people being murdered as the looting spree continues unabated. There is relentless carnage as the thugs run amok and with Rolfe now in the shadows the chances of bringing matters under control appear to be diminishing rapidly.
So it remains to be seen if the British Colonial powers will be able to tackle this vile plague or will they be rendered weak and ineffective, awaiting a rebellion and ultimate withdrawal from the Jewel in the Colonial Crown.
The Stranglers of Bombay itself may have seemed pretty harmless back in the day with the violence all suggested or shown in a manner where it is really rather genteel by modern standards. There are eyes gouged and tongues and limbs chopped off but the accent is mostly on sound effects and suggestion as it had to be in 1958 though there is the odd rubbery hand thrown in. The storyline is an extension of the British Raj Jungle Book Rudyard Kipling style vibe which was considered fairly inoffensive in the era the film was made however times have changed and so have political sensibilities.
Viewed by today’s standards, this film is offensive on different levels and to different degrees. That it is uncomfortably and overtly racist in tone and depiction is without a doubt but it is also an accurate reflection of how racism was just a way of life until just a couple of decades ago. Now as Western societies spawn new heroes such as the French World Cup Winning football team of 2018 which was composed nearly entirely of men of African heritage. Likewise, Sir Mo(hammad) Farah, just another Somali refugee not so long ago who could hardly string a few English words together. Mo(een) Ali (Cricket) is warmly regarded and embraced by the majority of the British public today as one of their own as is the burqa-clad Nadiya Hussain (Bake-Off). But, it wasn’t always like this. Just one example. Younis Ahmed, the ex-cricketer was bypassed season after season despite hugely successful seasons with surrey. Today that kind of treatment would be nothing short of scandalous. He never played even one match for England despite being fully qualified and yet so many people with mediocre records did. Racism was rife in British Culture in the 1970’s and its only since the turn of the century that cigarette smoking, racism, and homophobia is no longer considered all that cool. This true only of major cities where the demographic is now a complete melting bowl of nations, languages and cultures. Travel outside a city like London and the old mindset is not so difficult to find.
In the 70’s we had prime time TV shows based on stereotype racism that was and remains deeply offensive. Shows like Love Thy Neighbor or Mind Your Language were adored and perversely almost worshipped in South Asia where videotapes of the series were on hire at every video store. These shows have been shelved and could only return to the mainstream as a study of racism through the years. In school it was not uncommon to be called nig-nog, wog or Sambo because it is exactly what we were shown on our prime-time sitcoms of the day. The Stranglers of Bombay just bring back memories of the times when Britain still reeked of a sort of ignorance that was in fact what today can easily be recognized as racism. There are a whole range of issues to take offence to in this film among them the blatant lies serenading as fact. Kali Devi has always been a much-revered goddess standing for equality and justice and against oppression. Then the depiction of Indians is obnoxious as well as the casting of obviously British actors employing painful Indian accents. What else can be expected on from a film where the Hertfordshire countryside serenades itself as Central India!
Other than the obvious racism, the film just doesn’t excite as an action or a horror thriller. The climax is barely discernible and when the film ends, it is on a weird note of success and yet defeat as the British Raj crumbles away. “matters taken under control” or words to that effect is hardly a thrilling climax expected after the ghastly bloodbath that has taken place before. The audience doesn’t get to see Pastell and his evil friends perish in the grisly ways that should have been.
When the end arrives there is a sense of, wait a second?” But then that feeling is followed by a feeling of “just as well, its over”. And finally, by “what a load of offensive bollocks that was”.
Hammer has made some controversial and even distasteful movies but this previously forgotten entity will come into prominence in years to come, for all the wrong reasons and as a study in time. Distasteful with its manner and unsatisfying as a thriller. Among the few positives are a typically dramatic score and some solid camerawork and a sublime poster