Tuesday, November 28, 2017


During the studio’s 1950’s and 1960’s heyday, Britain’s HAMMER FILMS released a wide variety of films in many genres—if you were to look at the studio’s output, I’d gamble that horror (of the Dracula variety, the kind of films for which Hammer was best known) would not be even 50% of it. They were a working studio with international distribution deals in many countries, and all of those countries had a hunger for quality product, professional-looking features with marketable concepts in easily identifiable genres with a star name or two. One of those countries was the United States, and Hammer had deals with different American studios over the years to provide programmer titles to fill the bottom of the bill in those days of double features (the double feature booking practice continued here into the early 70’s, and British product was often used as the “second feature”). Hammer had a long relationship with Columbia Pictures in the US, and in the last decade or two, Columbia-Sony have issued a few excellent multi-film box sets of Hammer’s non-horror features which had a US release via Columbia pictures in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Alas, PASSPORT TO CHINA, released in the US by Columbia in 1961, was NOT included on any of those sets.

In keeping with the bottom-of-the-bill programmer status of these Hammer pick-ups for the American market, PASSPORT TO CHINA was released here in black and white, even though it was made in color (my DVD-R of this seems to be taken from an old TV broadcast someone recorded onto a VHS tape, and it is in color).

The few online references to the film, mostly by Hammer authorities who have covered the studio’s entire output, do not rate it very highly, calling it boring or overly talky or lacking tension (or something similar). Yes, no one would describe the film as full of nail-biting excitement, and it lacks the over-the-top cartoonish feel of the 1958 HONG KONG CONFIDENTIAL (with Gene Barry), but when I put myself into the shoes of someone here in the US who wanders into their 1961 local theater after a long work week, with a bucket of popcorn and a large soda and looking forward to 3 ½ hours of escapist entertainment via a double feature, I think I would be relatively satisfied with PASSPORT TO CHINA….although it might not make a strong permanent impression.

Richard Basehart, who blasted into public consciousness as the psychotic killer in the 1948 hard-boiled crime classic HE WALKED BY NIGHT, was an actor’s actor, the kind of person who could play any part, gentle or brutal or solemn or comedic, and who could be either leading man or character actor, whatever was needed, and he was secure enough as an actor to treat every role as equally important, even when he probably knew that it wasn't. He’d also worked in Europe (he did two films for Fellini!) and was married to an Italian woman in the 1950’s, so not only did he have an international following from his American films, but he was an international figure himself. The same year that he made PASSPORT TO CHINA (also known as VISA TO CANTON) for Hammer and producer-director Michael Carreras (who was better known as a producer and directed only a handful of projects), he also made one of the first Euro-westerns for Carreras (who had created his own production company, independent of Hammer, with another Hammer regular, writer-producer Jimmy Sangster), SAVAGE GUNS, which was released in the US by MGM. It is (supposedly) the first Eurowestern to be shot in Almeria, Spain, and is usually discussed in any serious history of the European Western.

Basehart is perfect for PASSPORT TO CHINA as he is charming, he’s got a great speaking voice (which served him well in later years as a narrator of documentaries) which is put to use in the film’s voice-over narration, and he can be convincingly tough when needed. His character is a former military man who fought alongside the Chinese against the Japanese prior to and during WWII, and so he feels as though the Chinese are his people and Hong Kong is his home. In fact, he literally has a Chinese “family” in that the family of his war buddy has kind of adopted him, as he has no ‘family’ of his own. His knowledge of China and things Chinese, along with his contacts in different Asian cities made during his years as a pilot, allowed him to open and operate a successful travel agency, and in the initial scenes in the film, he is shown working out the inevitable problems that arise with visas and the like in international travel, as well as schmoozing with and charming cranky customers at his travel office.

Then one of those anonymous government operatives you see in spy films comes into his office and tries to get him involved in a mission about an airplane that was forced to land in Red China. Basehart politely declines, explaining that he is a businessman and not into politics….and also that he needs to keep good relations with all parties in the area, including the mainland Chinese, because as a travel agent, he works with parties everywhere.

Of course, the film would end right there if that’s all there was to it….so when Basehart visits his Chinese “family” after that encounter, he learns that his “brother” in that adoptive family was on the mysterious plane.

At that point, we’re 20 minutes in to a 75 minute film, and you can figure out where it goes from there. The brother managed to escape from the plane before the Reds get to it, but the other passengers did not….and one of them was an intelligence courier….and certain governmental forces manage to “persuade” (by holding his brother on false smuggling charges) Basehart to help. I won’t give away any spoilers about the rest.

I must say that I don’t agree with those who find the film boring or overly talky. Maybe these people are comparing this to a MISSING IN ACTION or a RAMBO film or some straight-to-video action film where people bust heads and kick ass now and ask questions later. Obviously, Basehart needs to work carefully, ask questions, establish contacts, etc., and all of that is handled well, at least as well as you’d find in any above-average detective or spy film. Oh, and there’s also a woman who needs his help with another issue, and that muddies the water in the second half of the film (and creates the expected romantic interest).

Hammer does not do a bad job in their films set in foreign areas (think Terror of the Tongs)….with a combination of evocative sets and second-unit photography that’s well integrated into the film, they can convince you of the film’s setting without flying the star and crew across the world. I assume that’s what was done here. It certainly feels like Hong Kong and Mainland China, at least a B-movie version of them.

This is Richard Basehart’s show—he’s in pretty much EVERY scene, and he’s a convincing enough actor to carry us along with him from adventure to adventure and also to make us care about his situation. Producers who hired Richard Basehart knew the man could deliver the goods AND bring a touch of class to their project (after all, he’d worked for Fellini TWICE, played Ishmael in an adaptation of MOBY DICK, etc.).

If a Hammer espionage programmer set in Hong Kong and Canton, China, starring Richard Basehart sounds appealing to you (it did to me!), then try to find a copy of PASSPORT TO CHINA. I would not be surprised to see it on one of the streaming services or on a cable channel at 3 a.m., since it’s both a Hammer film AND a Columbia release in the US. It’s not some off-the-wall independent film of murky provenance. I’ve enjoyed virtually every Hammer film I’ve ever seen (even the ones from the “new” Hammer, in recent years), and even the ones which were not great were interesting curios. I particularly like the early 50’s Hammer crime films, which involved Robert Lippert as a production partner (they were released in the US by Lippert Pictures) and included, via Lippert, an American star such as, say, Cesar Romero or Alex Nicol or Lloyd Bridges or Dane Clark. VCI has many volumes of those available, under the slightly mis-leading title HAMMER NOIR. Any and all of the volumes in that series are highly recommended.

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