1969 | West Germany, Italy
Director: Roberto Mauri
AKA: Kommissar X – Drei goldene Schlangen; Island of Lost Girls
As directed by series newcomer Roberto Mauri (whose previous directing credits include King of Kong Island and a number of obscure Spaghetti Westerns, but exactly zero spy films), Three Golden Serpents, the fifth in the wild Kommissar X Eurospy series, is something of a departure from what had come before. In particular, it has more of a hard exploitation edge to it than the previous entries and is markedly more mean-spirited. At the same time, our heroes Jo Walker (Tony Kendall) and Tom Rowland (Brad Harris) appear to be a bit on auto-pilot, with less of the shtick-y but good-natured hijinks that marked their earlier outings. Mind you, there’s still evidence of the series’ patented goofiness to be seen. We get the spectacle of the burly Rowland mixing it up with an intimidating dwarf, commandeering a mini-taxi while dressed in an undersized bellhop uniform, and a climactic mud fight.
With the somewhat low-key, Montreal Expo-based antics of the fifth entry, Kill, Panther, Kill!, it might have seemed safe to assume that the franchise had settled into what was, compared to the settings of the earlier films, fairly pedestrian territory. But with Serpents’ Thailand setting we happily see a return to the emphasis on far-flung locales that we saw in the initial four movies. Unfortunately, our introduction to that setting is conducted in about the most unexciting manner possible, by way of some uninspired travelogue footage that sees what appears to be a middle-aged Midwestern couple making their leisurely way around Bangkok as the male half of the couple drones on affectlessly about various sights and local customs. This goes on for quite a while and marks an unflattering departure from the opening sequences of pretty much every earlier Kommissar X, which typically took us right into the middle of the action without pause for preface or scene-setting.
Things finally get interesting when the young woman who is accompanying the couple wanders off on her own and is accosted by series-regular goons Herbert Fuchs and Pinzo Mattei, who bundle her off into a waiting boat. The woman is American tourist Phyllis Leighton, daughter of the older woman, Maud Leighton ( German actress Loni Heuser). Phyllis is taken to a secret island, where she will become just one of many young, white Western women held captive, pumped full of hallucinogenic drugs, and subjected to Chinese water torture until they become mindless sex slaves for the pleasure of the wealthy Western men willing to pay top dollar for their services. Hence the origin of Three Golden Serpents’ alternate U.S. title, Island of Lost Girls.
The distraught Mrs. Leighton seeks the assistance of New York Police Captain Tom Rowland, who just happens to be in Bangkok for one of those international police conferences that he seems to attend so frequently. Rowland reluctantly tells the woman that his hands are tied because the matter is outside his jurisdiction – even though such impediments to his legal involvement will seem to trouble him less and less as the film progresses.
Mrs. Leighton then makes mention of a certain world-famous private detective by the name of Jo Walker, who, by this point in the series, is also actually being referred to as “Kommissar X”, though nothing in the films themselves ever explains why. Rowland groans and rolls his eyes because that’s just the kind of relationship that he and Walker have. Our introduction to Jo Walker in Three Golden Serpents underscores the caliber of filmmaking we’re dealing with, coming by way of a recycled and re-dubbed scene from the earlier Kill, Panther, Kill! in which Walker is made to seem as if he’s talking on the phone to Mrs. Leighton in Thailand. Once summoned, Walker jets his way to Thailand, at which point the villains’ serial attempts to murder him immediately commence.
I’ve gone on at length elsewhere about the type of lazy plotting in 60s spy movies that allows the villains to do the heroes’ work for them by calling attention to themselves with all kinds of ill-advised and ostentatious assassination attempts when they could instead simply evade capture by laying low. I also know that this is not just lazy plotting, but also a matter of simply being entertaining. After all, those kinds of cat-and-mouse sequences were the most memorable parts of the Bond films that inspired the Eurospy wave. Still, it has to be said that the Kommissar X films are probably the most egregious offenders in this regard (and bless them for it), and perhaps Three Golden Serpents most of all. Consider that Jo Walker is only in Thailand to investigate what could easily be a routine missing person case, and that there’s no reason for him to assume that this is the result of anything other than run-of-the-mill criminal activity – until, of course, someone tries to blow up the taxi he’s riding in with a flame canon.
Three Golden Serpents also makes such profligate use of the old “informant killed by a surreptitiously fired blowgun dart just as he/she is revealing crucial information” scene that you’d think no one involved knew it was a cliche. They seriously do this at least three times. It is in the course of fending off one of these aforementioned assaults that Walker and Rowland come upon their first, most important, and perhaps only clue. It is a telltale tattoo on one of their attackers’ arms, picturing three intertwined snakes, that will subsequently be seen on the arms of myriad subsequent attackers, and will ultimately be traced to a benevolent association run by a successful Chinese businesswoman by the name of Madame Kim Son (Vilaiwan Vatanapanich).
From there, our two heroes are led on a labyrinthine trail involving a puzzling array of possible suspects… oh, who am I kidding? It’s Madame Kim Son. Madame Kim Son is the brains behind the whole island sex slavery operation. She’s also in cahoots with a cult-y guy called Landru, who we met earlier and already knew was an expert in all manner of poisons, so that doesn’t come as much of a surprise either. (Though what did come as somewhat of a surprise was the deeply unpleasant scene in which Landru demonstrates the lethality of one of his poisons by injecting it into a squalling Siamese cat.)
Once the pieces have all fallen together like those of a fairly easy puzzle whose pieces are actually quite large and few in number, and probably made of chunky wood, Walker goes about scheming his way onto the island. This he eventually does by way of posing as a potential client – and then, being Jo Walker, by trying to put the moves on Madame Kim Son during the boat ride over for good measure. This turns out to be an imprudent tack, as we soon learn that Kim Son’s sex slavery scheme is merely part of a super-scheme by her to exact revenge against every white man on the planet.
The specifics of how she intends to do this aren’t apparent, but in Jo Walker’s case, it involves her chaining him to a post and shooting him full of hallucinogens. This affords Tony Kendall the opportunity to demonstrate that he has perfected his ability to deliver a more standard movie-style version of Jo Walker having a drug freak-out since his more idiosyncratic pass at it in Death Trip. He is aided in this by some superimposed images of crocodiles that swirl around his head. Then Tom Rowland and a bunch of other law enforcement types parachute onto the island and everybody has a fight in the mud.
While it’s my least favorite of the Kommissar X movies so far, as the above synopsis probably made it plain, Three Golden Serpents is not bereft of moments of enjoyable stupidity. Furthermore, the musical score by Francesco De Masi and Roberto Pregadio is both unusual and weirdly effective, though the absence of Bobby Gutesha’s “I Love You, Jo Walker” song is a sin of omission if ever there was one. It also has to be said that director Mauri keeps things moving at a swift pace, though in some ways that brevity counts as a failing.
At times, it seems that Mauri is so intent on keeping us moving from one workmanlike action set piece to the next that he forgets to slow down for those moments of patented absurdity – in particular, the business of Jo Walker being as one-dimensionally caddish as a cartoon cat, as well as the dopey verbal sparring between him and Rowland — that make the series what it is. When we do see these things, it is fleeting, making us long for one of those wonderful yet, in a narrative sense, superfluous scenes like the one in So Darling, So Deadly in which Walker mugged ruefully over Rowland’s pathetic attempts at dancing to the rock and roll music.