1969 | Turkey
AKA: Demir Pence Korsan Adam
Director: Çetin İnanç
In the course of doing my usual rigorous research in preparation for bringing you the most carefully considered review of Iron Claw the Pirate possible, I came upon some information that seemed to suggest that it was the second film in a series of Iron Claw movies. That made sense to me, because Iron Claw the Pirate is a film that seems to start in progress, without any introduction of the characters or ongoing conflicts. However, what makes sense does not always prove to be so –especially in the case of Turkish action cinema–and I later determined that I had misinterpreted that information. In fact, it was Iron Claw the Pirate that was the first film, followed immediately by its sequel, Demir Pence Casuslar Savasi. Still, the reality of the situation makes its own kind of sense, simply because that’s just the way that these movies are. Any amount of exposition or character development would most likely have been seen by the makers of Iron Claw the Pirate as a waste of valuable time that could otherwise have been devoted to fistfights, shootouts, and fleshy women doing exotic dances.
Iron Claw was directed by Cetin Inanc, a man who would cement his place in film history with 1982’s The Man Who Saves the World, aka Turkish Star Wars, a film that married stolen special effects footage from Star Wars with footage of graying he-man Cuneyt Arkin kicking around boulders and fighting monsters with giant paper mache heads. But long before that career milestone, Inanc got his start as an assistant to director Yilmaz Atadeniz. As most fans of Turkish pulp cinema know, Atadeniz is the inspired lunatic whose obsession with comic books and American movie serials lead to the film that would kick off the 1960s wave of Turkish costumed hero movies, Kilink Instanbul’da (Kilink in Istanbul). That film set a template that would remain largely unchanged until the Turkish superhero boom finally waned in the early seventies, a combination of the serials’ nonstop two-fisted action and gee-whiz heroics with a greezy dose of S&M tinged sleaze.
Inanc’s first directing break came courtesy of Atadeniz, who put him in charge of his production of Kizil Mask, a remake of the Columbia serial The Phantom, based on Lee Falk’s comic strip hero. Though Atadeniz later said that he regretted that decision, Inanc obviously got the hang of things by the time of making Iron Claw. In fact, the movie is so similar in every way to Atadeniz’s own Casus Kiran (a remake of the Republic serial Spy Smasher), made just a year earlier, that because I watched both in quick succession, I’ve had to keep going back while writing this to make sure that I wasn’t confusing their details.
Simply put, Iron Claw is a superhero whose superpower is shooting people. It’s quite practical as superpowers go, and well suited to the fact that all of Iron Claw’s opponents are just as heavily armed and trigger happy as he is–a situation that would no doubt leave Aquaman, with his ability to summon whales and seahorses, flummoxed. Despite the film’s title, there’s nothing really pirate-y about Iron Claw–he’s very cozy with the police, for one thing–and everyone just refers to him as “Iron Claw”, without the occupational appellation, or simply as Demir, which is the name of his alter ego (played by Demir Karahan, in just one of the film’s examples of its cast not being trusted to respond to names that are different from their own). His costume appears to be mask-optional, as sometimes he wears one and sometimes he doesn’t–which is understandable, because he’s a damn good-looking dude. The rest of it reminds me of the spacesuits from Bava’s Planet of the Vampires: black leather with white piping, though augmented with a weird square belt buckle with a face on it that looks like one of the blockheads from Gumby as forged by some kid in his metal shop class. Rounding out the ensemble is a whip that Iron Claw waves around when he’s not just shooting everybody.
Shooting people alongside Iron Claw is his girlfriend, Mine, dressed in a similar though more revealing costume. I always think it’s sweet when the Turks do this (Spy Smasher and Captain America were both given girlfriend sidekicks in their movies, too); it’s as if they don’t want their superheroes to get lonely — even though I know that it’s really just an excuse to have a fleshy woman running around in a leather mini and thigh boots. For the first half of the movie I kept thinking of Mine as “unnamed female accomplice”, because it took that long for someone to actually refer to her.
Even when she’d barge into the crooks’ den at Iron Claw’s side and start shooting everybody in the face (seemingly the preferred target), all that the bad guys would shout was “Iron Claw!”, as if she wasn’t even there. Of course, exclaiming “Oh, look. It’s Iron Claw and his unnamed female accomplice” might be a lot to ask of someone who’s being shot in the face. Still, I noticed her at least; she looked great in her costume, and very cool alongside Iron Claw as the two of them sped along on their twin motorcycles. Not even Iron Claw ends up giving her much respect, though, since at one point he beds a sexy enemy agent to the accompaniment of drunken saxophone music (all part of the job, of course) and doesn’t seem to think twice about lying to her about it.
As far as I can tell, the character of Iron Claw is an original, if somewhat generic, creation. But lest you should begin to think that Iron Claw the Pirate is a Turkish action film that’s completely free of flagrant copyright violations, let me point out that its villain is none other than that dastardly French import Fantomas. This was not the first time that Fantomas had made an appearance in Turkish cinema–he headlined Fantomas: Appointment in Istanbul in 1967, and would go on to face off against Superman in 1969’s Supermen Fantom’ya Karsi–and the choice of him as a villain was no doubt inspired by the success of the Kilink movies.
Given that, its a very good one as choices go, because Fantomas is the very seed from which Kilink ultimately sprouted. Created in the early years of the last century by French pulp novelists Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, the masked criminal genius would go on to be a durable fixture in European pop culture, featured in everything from comics to movies to television, and would ultimately be the inspiration for the comic character Diabolik, who would in turn inspire imitations in the form of Kriminal and Kilink, who again in turn would be translated by the aforementioned Yilmaz Atadeniz into the skeleton-garbed evil mastermind Kilink. (Fantomas would even, like Kilink’s inspiration Killing, be the subject of his own photo comic during the early sixties.)
Fantomas himself would go through many incarnations in his lifetime, but it appears to me that the version on view in Iron Claw is based on the one seen in the 1960s series of Fantomas movies directed by Andre Hunebelle. Those films cast the actor Jean Marais in a double role as both Fantomas and as his arch enemy, the reporter Fandor–and in an interesting interpretation of that, Iron Claw fits Fantomas with a reporter alter ego. Iron Claw seems also to be going for Fantomas’ general look from those films, specifically the head-enveloping, skintight blue mask that obscures all of his features but his eyes. Only in Iron Claw‘s case that is accomplished by means of the actor wearing a black ski mask and having all of his visible features, including his ears, darkened with bootblack. Regardless of lineage, however, Iron Claw’s Fantomas is clearly a villain in the Kilink mode, slapping around women (and worse) while calling them “honey” and “baby”, and having no qualms about thinning his own HR pool by blowing away underperforming minions at the drop of a hat.
And speaking of Kilink, also on hand is the man himself, Yildrim Gencer–only in this rare instance he’s not playing the masked villain, but rather a two-fisted secret agent (named “Yildrim”, of course) who fights alongside Iron Claw in his battle against Fantomas. I had heard ugly rumors that Gencer had on occasion stepped away from his evil-doing duties and played on the side of right, and I’m happy to report that he here makes a very dashing hero–though, needless to say, a brooding one who’s always dressed in black. As demonstrated by the Kilink films, Gencer wasn’t one to shy from rough and tumble stunt work (not that I imagine much of a choice existed for the actors who wanted to appear in these movies), and the teaming of him with the equally game Demir Karahan makes for some especially kinetic set pieces. Also in Gencer’s favor is his mustache, which is possessed of exactly the level of gravity and presence that you’d want in a mustache worn by a brooding, black clad action hero; it’s just a shame that he and Maurizio Merli never met onscreen to pit those two noble beasts against one another in a steely-eyed, musk- drunken ‘stache-off.
As I mentioned earlier, the plot of Iron Claw the Pirate joins us in progress, with Fantomas vowing to come to Turkey to take “revenge” for something or other that we, the audience, are never made privy to. He also says something about settling things with Iron Claw personally, which is weird, because once he’s in Turkey, he doesn’t appear to have any idea who Iron Claw is. Next we are shown Iron Claw being handed a revolver and holster by someone off-screen, after which Iron Claw also vows to take revenge for something that isn’t at all alluded to. Then Fantomas arrives in Istanbul and meets with the agents who have been doing his dirty work in his absence. These include Cancel (Feri Cansel) a sexy spy/exotic dancer, and Behcet (Behcet Nakar), a big guy with muttonchops who wears a leopard print fur hat and, inexplicably, what looks to be a steel oven mitt. Behcet, aside from being an edgy dresser, has a gift for letting fly with exactly the type of colorful oaths that we’d like to think we can count on from the Turks, like when he says of Iron Claw, “I’ll make him spit out his mother’s milk”.
Fantomas’ first order of business is to consolidate all of the enemy agents in Turkey under his power, and so a meeting is called. Because Iron Claw and Mine have a comedy relief sidekick called “The Uncle” who works undercover as a janitor at the strip club where Fantomas’ men meet to discuss all of their plans (a fact which, once established, relieves the movie of ever having to provide any explanation for why Iron Claw is able to show up wherever Fantomas and his men are every single time), the masked heroes find out about the meeting and barge in, guns blazing. During the ensuing melee, Iron Claw’s policeman pal Yilmaz is mortally wounded. A tear-filled death scene follows that would probably be really poignant if we hadn’t just met Yilmaz about thirty seconds ago. After that, Yilmaz’s brother–i.e Yildrim, the brooding secret agent–comes to town looking for payback and, after a really confusing scene in which he and The Uncle both appear to be pretending to be agents of Fantomas, is granted an introduction to Iron Claw and Mine. The three then agree to join forces to take Fantomas and his gang down.
Like the old serials that inspired them, these films offer a pretty set and predictable range of motivations for their villains, and here what Fantomas is after is a certain professor who has in his possession a microfilm containing something that it was apparently determined wasn’t worth mentioning to the audience–and who also, predictably, has a beautiful young daughter. Unlike in those old serials, however, Fantomas ends up shooting that kindly old professor to death and then slaughtering his daughter on a sacrificial altar, so chalk one up for unpredictability. Before that can happen, however, we have scenes in which Fantomas’ gang must hoodwink the local mafia in order to get their hands on the professor, which leads to much shooting of people, and then a series of scenes in which Iron Claw, Mine and Yildrim attempt to rescue the professor and his daughter, which leads to even more shooting of people, especially in the face.
Beyond the whole microfilm thing, Fantomas doesn’t really appear to have any one grand plan, like blowing up the moon, or making the world’s gold supply smell like cheese. He more seems to have his hand in a lot of different pots, happy to stir up trouble for the Turkish people in whatever way he can. At one point he’s showing off a weapons factory, then some kind of superboat that he’s constructing, and then there’s something that involves all kinds of boxes of TNT that he’s having shipped in. It was definitely wise for him to diversify in this manner, because Iron Claw and his crew invariably show up to foil whatever evil project he’s most recently announced. Because of that we don’t ever get to see any of these schemes that Fantomas has been crowing about come to fruition, which made me wonder why, given that it wouldn’t have impacted the film’s budget in the least, the filmmakers didn’t have him aim higher. After all, it doesn’t cost anything to have your villain just talk about blowing up the moon. And, to give credit where credit is due, the actor who played Fantomas was really good at talking up those plans, employing a dynamic repertoire of stylized hand gestures the likes of which have not been seen since Spectreman‘s Dr. Gori.
Like other Turkish movies of the period, Iron Claw the Pirate was made without recourse to even the most primitive optical effects. (To put it in perspective, the documentary included with the DVD mentions how Inanc wowed the Turkish film industry in the early 1970s with his pioneering use of slow motion.) The titles are printed on cards, and a scene in which Fantomas and his gang address their Turkish counterparts via a two-way TV screen is accomplished by having the actors stand behind a facade with a screen-shaped hole cut in it.
Likewise, the visual style is for the most part unadorned, with the camera simply struggling to capture the scope and velocity of all of the action that’s taking place. This makes moments of inventiveness stick out all the more when they occur, as does one particularly clever shot in which a long downward pan appears to show simultaneous action occurring on several different levels of a house at once. A similar technique is used for a strange, wordless scene in which Fantomas rides a lift up the face of that same structure–a scene that struck me as having a vaguely French new wave feel to it, like something out of Alphaville. Often these films, because of the crudity of their execution and the datedness of their influences, can seem as if they’re suspended in some kind of alternate reality–until moments like these remind you otherwise, and you realize that the players in the then still young Turkish film industry were eagerly studying the world cinematic landscape for techniques and elements of style that they could experiment with.
Alongside their other obvious, albeit ramshackle, charms, Turkish costumed adventure pictures like Iron Claw can hit a nostalgic nerve for those of us whose childhoods included our own backyard superhero epics made with the family camcorder of super 8. Despite some niftier costumes, and the fact that their stars were actually old enough to drive, in a lot of cases the production values aren’t that far beyond what a bunch of kids with some imagination and a few summer afternoons to kill could cook up. In the case of Iron Claw, for instance, Fantomas’ haunted house HQ consists of a sheet with and “F” stenciled on it, some carpet remnants, and not a whole lot else.
As with those home movie epics, however, what Iron Claw lacks in resources, it makes up for in enthusiasm, and when its time for a fight scene, the actors go at it with all the hyperactive vigor of a bunch of eight-year-olds hopped up on sugar and Ultraman reruns. Completing the picture is the ADD-like inattention to the intricacies of plot, which by means of its impatience renders the story little more than a thin and cursory connective tissue between those fight scenes. All of these factors combine with the paradoxical result of imbuing films which are the product of an industry that was no doubt about as mercenary and cutthroat as they come with a winning innocence, even as those films are actively trying to counter that innocence with another scene of sadism or tawdry burlesque.
While it’s not the purpose of Teleport City to serve as a DVD buyer’s guide, I did want to point out before closing that, of the Turkish films of its vintage so far released by Onar Films, Iron Claw the Pirate is one of the better looking ones; though the picture is still soft, it’s largely free of the severe print damage that marred the first two Kilink pictures. Of course, seeing as no efforts were ever made to preserve these films, we’re lucky to be able to see them in any condition, but it’s nice nonetheless when you’re able to watch one without the effect of doing so through a sheet of grimy cellophane. I’d also like to thank Onar for making these films available for us to see, because I doubt anyone is getting rich off of releasing titles like Casus Kiran and 3 Dev Adam, and the least we can do is let them know we appreciate it (oh, and also buy the damn things).
For myself, I would like to believe that watching Iron Claw the Pirate enriched my life in some imperceptible–if perhaps stupid–way, even though it really just represents another ninety minutes of my life spent watching grown men in masks punching and shooting one another. At the very least, my wealth of experience in that one particular and very limited activity allows me to say with authority that Iron Claw the Pirate is indeed a very good ninety minutes of grown men in masks punching and shooting one another. Of course, that is as it should be, since the industry it was a product of seems to have taken as its primary mission the refining of such films down to their purest and most pleasurable elements.