Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Deadly Thief (India, 1978)

Well, they sure tricked us on this one: when we picked up this one-dollar double feature DVD at Dollar Tree in Vegas over a decade ago, we thought we were getting some obscure thriller starring a slumming Rex Harrison (5 Mar 1908 – 2 Jun 1990) titled The Deadly Thief. And then, yesterday, after we finally got around to popping the disc into our DVD player, we found we had actually gotten ourselves an obscure Bollywood thriller (?) starring a slumming Rex Harrison titled Shalimar. Or at least a cut of that film, possibly once titled Raiders of the Sacred Stone, which was intended for Western audiences.
Argentinean trailer to
The Deadly Thief:

And as an added pleasure, this unknown, obscure Bollywood thriller stars not only a slumming Rex Harrison, but also features the great John Saxon (5 Aug 1936 – 25 Jul 2020, below not from the film) and an incredibly miscast and wonderfully out-of-place Sylvia Miles ([9 Sept 1924 – 12 Jun 2019] of The Sentinel [1977 / trailer], Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse [1981 / trailer] and Violent Midnight [1963 / full film, with James Farentino]) — all three in their only Bollywood appearances ever. And the wonders of what you learn on the internet: Sylvia Miles replaced the original star signed, Gina "36-22-35" Lollobrigida, who bailed the project shortly after arriving to India.*
* "It is April 1977 in Bombay, and at the muhurat of Shalimar, Bollywood's landmark international flop, Zeenat Aman and Gina Lollobrigida are fighting for supremacy on the lawns of the Turf Club. Their chosen weapons are thigh-high side-slits and plunging necklines. Lollobrigida loses out to a much younger Aman and bails out of the film in disgust, to be replaced by an 'old-looking, shrivelled, passionless and temperamental Sylvia Miles'. [Indian Express]"

"Obscure Bollywood thriller" is naturally a relative phrase. Harold Robbins (who?), for example, is surely an obscure American writer to most people in India — if not, by now and despite his former fame, to most of the world. In its day, Shalimar cum The Deadly Thief cum Raiders of the Sacred Stone may have been a flop in its homeland (likewise not making a ripple in the rest of the world), but studded with names that are well-known in India, the movie was the most expensive Bollywood production to date in 1978, and thus infamous. (Infamous precludes obscurity.)
Supposedly Shalimar cum The Deadly Thief
cum Raiders of the Sacred Stone has since garnered a cult following, while its soundtrack has long since become a popular source of samples. However: the 90-minute English-language version of the movie (the Hindi-language version is around 137 minutes), lacking almost all musical numbers as well as the introduction and a lot of character back-story, leans definitely towards the unknown or forgotten, whether under its rarer title, The Deadly Thief, or its original English title, Raiders of the Sacred Stone.
The great title track to
Shalimar / The Deadly Thief:
Based loosely on the lesser James Hadley Chase (24 Dec 1906 – 6 Feb 1985) novel The Vulture Is a Patient Bird, The Deadly Thief changes the novel's MacGuffin, a poison ring once owned by Caesar Borgia (13 Sep 1475 – 12 Mar 1507), into the largest gemstone in the world, the Shalimar Ruby, and the location of events from the mountainous range around the Drakensberg (where?) to a private island off the Asian continent. The "millionaire and compulsive collector" is turned into the millionaire master thief "dying of cancer", Sir John Locksley (Rex Harrison of Staircase [1969 / full film] & Matt Cimber's A Time to Die [1982 / trailer]), and instead of a troop of agents attempting to steal the ring back, in The Deadly Thief, Locksley invites a selection of the best master thieves alive to come to his estate and individually attempt to steal the stone — at the cost of their respective lives upon failure.
Locksley, as perhaps to be expected, is revealed to have an ulterior motive towards the end of the movie, but prior to its revelation the viewer gets to watch one obviously doomed attempt after the other leading up the movie's nominal hero, the "rank amateur" S.S. Kumar (the big, single-name Hindu star Dharmendra**) getting the girl, otherwise known as Locksley's assistant, Sheila Enders (a truly striking Zeenat Aman of Hulchul [1971 / music]). And the stone, of course.
* The Vulture Is a Patient Bird had a somewhat more faithful if not even more obscure film adaptation in Italy in 1991, starring Donald Pleasence; titled L'avvoltoio può attendere, the movie does not seem to have ever had an English-language release, but here is the Russian release.
** Among Dharmendra's films: the unofficial remake of The Others [2001 / trailer], Hum Kaun Hai? [2004 / full film] and the Hindi version of Superman [1987 / trailer]. Around the time he made The Deadly Thief, he had been voted in India as one of the handsomest men in the world.
Director Krishna Shaw (10 May 1938 – 13 Oct 2013) — who later produced such fine (Not!) films as Hard Rock Zombies (1985 / trailer), Sleepaway Camp IV: The Survivor (1992 / trailer), Bud Cort's peculiar Ted & Venus (1991 / fan-made trailer), and the oddly meta Evil Laugh (1986 / murders) — may have spent a reported $4 million* to make what he hoped would be the "caper film to end all caper films", but at least by Western standards his movie falls seriously short of being anything other than an uneven, oddly paced and incompetently staged unintentional comedy. Which is not to say The Deadly Thief doesn't look as if it cost money, as it does look as if it had a big budget, it is just that it never even achieves the visual verisimilitude of the worst James Bond film, a comparison that is justified as Sir Locksley's compound is definitely modeled after the generically huge and deadly and opulent lair of the typical Bond bad guy. (At least in The Deadly Thief the allegiance of all the lackies is explained: they are pretty much slaves.)
* In today's dollars, adjusted, that would be a bit more than $26.5 million — hardly a "big" budget in today's world of big money.
Much like the movie lacks a visual verisimilitude, the various characters almost all never achieve any sense of realism or naturalism — the possible exceptions being Harrison's Lockley, Aman's Enders and Saxon's Col. Columbus — and none manage to convincingly come across as a master thief. In this regard, the almost camp Sylvia Miles, as the acrobatic Countess Rasmussen, is a laugh whenever she is on screen: her dialogue is over-the-top positivism, her outfits of a "heterosexual pretending to be a drag-queen" nature, and all her stunt scenes are all done by a foot-taller man in a wig, or through breathtakingly bad editing. (A prime example: her entry scene, where she forward flips over a castle rampart to land standing in an open-topped vehicle, looks less edited than as if it is missing some film stock.)
That any of the thieves would take the challenge would indicate that they are as mentally challenged as they are supposedly masterful at thievery. Prior to the contest, it is even revealed to them that the castle and grounds are fully booby-trapped and under constant video surveillance — indeed, the group of "professionals" all stand together to watch, via surveillance camera, the obviously doomed attempt of the Colonel. What master thief would bother at making an attempt when they know they are being watched and Locksley can raise the alarm as he see fit? (At least, that is, not without first perhaps knocking out the surveillance system, which none of them think to do.) But no, one by one they bravely make their attempt, going to their doom with eyes wide open...
The Deadly Thief is a bad and dated movie, one would hope even by Bollywood standards, but it has its enjoyable points that makes it a fun watch in a psychotronic way. The Colonel, for example, is suddenly (inexplicably by western standards) proclaimed a deity by the Locksley's lackies, which leads to the only dance number not cut from the English print, a fun beachside number featuring the former Bollywood dancer Jayamalini. The Countess's circus-performer-tinged endeavor to get the ruby, in turn, is fit for a Pink Panther film (where, admittedly, the character surely would have been cast with a Playboy-appropriate actress), and is all the funnier by the way her height and figure keeps changing from shot to shot. The final, successful attempt — which then leads to a James Bond-like final scene of the full and illogical destruction of the entire compound — is likewise enjoyable, an almost surreally pop-art like undertaking that ultimately achieves an almost Laurel & Hardy-like funniness that surely was not intentional.
The dance sequence in
The Deadly Thief:
It is, perhaps, a shame that the English version is lacking all but one of the typical Bollywood dance and/or music interludes, for if the one retained dance scene is a decent representation of all that which is cut, they would have been a positive addition to the movie. Indeed, it is the innate Bollywoodism of the movie that is one of its most enjoyable features, if not the special ingredient that turns the whole, failed movie into an enjoyably idiotic time-waster.
From Shalimar, but not The Deadly Thief
One Two Cha Cha:
Again, The Deadly Thief is anything but a "good" film, and it is surely not everyone's cup of chutney. But it is an entertaining fiasco that even young kids might enjoy, which makes it a viable movie to help hone and develop the bad-taste tendencies of any young offspring. Otherwise, a lot of beer and a decent smoke might be advised...
Everything you ever wanted to know about
Shalimar (1978):


Brian Naas said...

Ha! I had no idea that there was a cut American version. What a horrible idea. The version I have is 142 minutes and though very far from good is highly entertaining. The music - which it appears this version is missing is from R.D. Burman who was one of the greats. Too bad they cut so much of it out - I like the idea of Americans picking up a cheapy film and being assaulted by Bollywood!

Abraham said...

We would definitely agree that the flick "though very far from good is highly entertaining"... Not that we review that many Bollywood films here at a.w.l., but the few English audience cuts we've seen were all missing the song and dance scenes. Never understood why, as they are half the fun.

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