The Sunday Intertitle: Late August, Early September

It seemed timely to feature this intertitle from the early Doug Fairbanks starrer FLIRTING WITH FATE, an uncredited adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Man from China. (The title card refers to struggling artist Augie, played by Doug.) It’s an old story — a hapless loser hires an assassin (here, the artistically-monickered Automatic Joe) to end his misery, but then his luck changes, he wants to live, but he can’t find the gunman to call off the hit. Robert Siodmak made the story as LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER in Germany from a Billy Wilder script, again without crediting the source, and Philippe de Broca adapted it with credit, and with the inevitable Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead. The appearance of this movie put paid to Richard Lester’s plan to cast Ringo in the story and use it for the Beatles’ second film, and so we got HELP! instead.

Doug’s version starts slow and hammy, but proceeds to some fine silliness once paranoia and the plot kick in —

This may be my favourite intertitle of the year. It refers to the fantasy sequences of Automatic Joe snuffing a series of stand-ins in visions that pop up before Doug’s mind’s eye, and are shared by us. This seems like fairly advanced film narrative for the period. As a result of these fantasy murders, Doug spends the middle of the film fleeing in terror from anything that’s around, including the correspondence-school detective who’s trying to protect him. A long sequence of two characters in false beards taking fright at each other and at any other bearded men, has a real feel of vaudeville on acid.

Automatic Joe (George Beranger) is guilt-stricken because he has accepted fifty bucks to snuff a man, and the fellow still breathes. I am besotted with this image, especially the deeply-scored wallpaper in the background.

This might be the best approach to Verne’s story idea — it seems like a superb plot motor, but filmmakers often seem to have some trouble figuring out what to do with it. It can essentially lead anywhere. Fairbanks, with writers Robert M Baker and Christy Cabanne, who also directed, serve up plenty of impressive acrobatics for Doug, but actually concentrate more on the story’s psychological side, using it as a study in comic suspense rather than a cue for adventure. Fairbanks, rather too flamboyant in the early “straight” scenes, becomes very amusing when he can athletically portray a mind in collapse, as in this image, which almost seems to reference William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar ~

Doug attempts to be inconspicuous.


22 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Late August, Early September”

  1. Speaking of Les Tribulations d’Un Chinoise en Chine remade by Philippe DeBroca with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Ursula Andress —

  2. The combination of Dali and Bond is a delirious prospect, but I wish I knew what he was saying. The Broca film looks fun, I wish there was a version with subtitles available. I just enjoyed Cartouche pretty well, so maybe my PDB aversion is fading.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    All I know of the de Broca film is a few stills of Ursula in some simply dazzling outfits. My God, that woman wears clothes almost as well as she takes them off!

  4. It being a Belmondo-Broca, I’m assuming there’s some spectacular stunt-work. Which, along with Ursula’s posing, may solve the problem of what to do with the plot idea once it’s set up.

  5. It was released stateside as Up To His Ears. It’s also known as Chinese Adventures in China

  6. Christopher Says:

    LOL..Lord Nelson indeed!…Pleasing clip.
    I love that title The Tribulations of a chinese man from China…and the idea of hiring an assassin to seek you out seems like a highly entertaining way to end it all.

  7. It’s always part of the plot that the murderee says *Don’t tell me when or where or how it’ll happen — I don’t want to know a thing about it!” Which is of course, a ridiculous thing to say. Although I can imagine Ringo Starr making it seem convincing.

  8. I saw UP TO HIS EARS in a so-so transfer in the MGM library; not far from the beginning Ms. Andress does a reverse strip-tease in a nightclub, ending up fully clothed. I didn’t see the point, exactly.

    Back to your side note of the Billy Wilder story about a man that hires an assassin to kill himself: maybe one of the reasons Wilder intensely disliked his brother W. Lee is the plot of W. Lee’s 1947 THE PRETENDER, in which Albert Dekker accidentally does the exact same thing. Dekker hires a killer to dispose of a woman’s fiance, but then gets engaged to her himself. Oops!

  9. As a gay fan who responds more intensely to Ursula in glamorous gowns than to Ursula in the nude, that reverse strip-tease sounds a total turn-on. If that girl were a guy, she’d make a sensational drag queen!

  10. Speaking of which, Elvis Presley allegedly quipped (after making FUN IN ACAPULCO) that he never slept with Ursula because he “never liked any gal whose shoulders are broader than mine.”

  11. The Pretender is probably W Lee’s “masterpiece” (what do you call it when a dreadful filmmaker achieves something less than dreadful? I propose “nonsterpiece”). It does have a little in common with the Verne idea, but the accidental nature of the pay-off is a genuinely original twist.

    I imagine the reverse striptease could work if the final costume were dazzling enough… Actually, isn’t a reverse striptease more usually known as “getting dressed”?

  12. Many thanks, David E! If anyone could ever doubt Ursula’s lasting iconic power, I think you’ve just set the record straight.

    First, Ursula as a chic and witty comedienne (hailed as such by Pauline Kael) in PERFECT FRIDAY. Next, Ursula as a Pop Art dominatrix in THE TENTH VICTIM (probably her best mainstream movie). Finally, Ursula as the Queen of Chain in the overpowering masterpiece that is CREMASTER 5.

    Matthew Barney is a genius, and it strikes me as criminal that all his films are not readily available on DVD – to be watched and marvelled at over and over again!!

  13. I think it’s by MB’s own choice that the Cremaster Cycle hasn’t been issued in its entirety. Or maybe it has, but in a diamond encrusted limited edition or something.

  14. And speaking of encrusted diamonds — and Ursula Andress

  15. But wait — there’s more !

  16. “Rome, Italian Style” has to be the lamest retitling ever! As opposed to “Rome, Dutch Style?”

  17. True. But Catherine O’Hara makes a lovely Ursula Andress.

  18. Absolutely. Confession: I hadn’t watched the whole clip and didn’t realize it was a parody!

    O’Hara is a goddess. Recently enjoyed her performance as the mentally ill Bam Bam in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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