Enter the Hong Kong Action Trio of Director Robert Clouse (Part One)

*contains spoilers

Director Robert Clouse (1928-97 kidney failure) is no great shakes when it comes to directing and his name isn’t up there with the greats.

Director Robert Clouse

But he started off well in the early to mid-1960s when two of his short films were nominated for Oscars.

He had one massive hit with Bruce Lee’s (1940-73 aneurysm from adverse reaction to medication) Enter the Dragon (1973), something which typecast the director in chop-socky circles beyond the trio of films generally set in Hong Kong which I will discuss.

It is also interesting that Clouse was one of the few directors working in Hollywood who was deaf.

A foreign lobby card for Darker than Amber (1970). Suzy Kendall and Rod Taylor.

His first feature to gain attention was the flop Darker than Amber (1970), a mystery based on one of the Travis McGee novels written by John D. MacDonald (1916-86 complications of bypass surgery). It starred Aussie Rod Taylor (1930-2015 heart attack) and there was plans to do a series of films based on the character and even, it is reported, a shirt line as worn by the lead character. All shelved due to soft box-office. It was beauty Jane Russell’s (1921-2011 respiratory illness) last movie and you can see why the middle-aged actress gave up on acting. Her cropped hair no help, her looks faded due to the passage of time, and the ravages of alcoholism.

Jane Russell first went into rehab in her late 70s

It is said Bruce Lee chose Clouse as director for Enter the Dragon because of a fight scene between Taylor and villain William Smith (1933-) which turned into unscripted fisticuffs in Darker than Amber.

The unscripted fight scene from Darker than Amber shed some blood

In the wake of Lee’s death just weeks before Enter the Dragon’s release the director became an expert on Lee – he directed Lee’s subsequently unfinished Game of Death – so much so that Clouse penned a volume on the actor which would serve as one of the source materials for Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993).

Enter the Dragon was a major hit filmed for under a million dollars and taking in between 90 and 200 million dollars depending on which source you listen to.

Clouse’s book was used as source material for Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story

The Game of Death (1978) was compromised and shelved but then later finished with stand-ins and other actors returning years later to finish their roles to a revised script.

It certainly didn’t stop Clouse’s career in the meantime as shortly after Enter the Dragon he served as director on Golden Needles (1974) and The Amsterdam Kill (1977) which also have Hong Kong locales.

Clouse’s script for Steven Spielberg’s Something Evil (1972) was a bit thin. Title card.

Clouse also wrote scripts for the early Steven Spielberg television movie Something Evil (1972), which was in dire need of an extra act, and wrote and directed the reasonably good post-apocalyptic film The Ultimate Warrior (1975) as well as the killer doggie movie The Pack (1977).

I’m leaving out titles like Black Belt Jones (1974), with Enter the Dragon co-star Jim Kelly (1946-2013 cancer), and China O’Brien (1990) featuring female marital arts star Cynthia Rothrock (1957-). And while on the subject of Clouse’s martial arts movies, lets not forget the gymnastics inspired Gymkata (1985).

Clouse’s Black Belt Jones (1974) with Enter the Dragon’s Jim Kelly in the starring role

Clouse also did the giant rats movie Deadly Eyes (1982) aka Rats, which was kind of based on James Herbert’s (1943-2013 suddenly at home) novel. That was set in England while the movie was shot in Canada.

When John Saxon (1935-) turned up on the set of Enter the Dragon, he thought he was the star. It was probably because Bruce Lee was nervous about the film and didn’t turn up for the first few days of the shoot, it is reported, from one source.

John Saxon on the left is directed by Clouse on right on the set of Enter the Dragon (1973)

Also, it is said by another of the film’s co-stars, Bob Wall (1939-) – he with the scar on his face in the movie – that Clouse only respected actors and thought little of the action players in the movie such as himself and Lee.

Wall said Clouse spread the rumour that when Wall cut Lee’s hand in a fight scene using a real bottle that Lee wanted to kill Wall. Wall said nothing was further from the truth and that Clouse was full of bull. If there is any reason to the rumour at all, I would suggest it would be Clouse trying for that added malicious extra for any extra fight scenes between the pair.

Bob Wall as the baddie in Enter the Dragon

For Clouse to dedicate himself to a book about Lee seems all the more hypocritical if that was really true.

Taking a look at Darker than Amber and the fight scene is pretty bloody and brutal for what is basically a fistfight with some broken furniture. Taylor ends up with a bloodied nose.

Bruce Lee and Wall seem friendly

Lee’s death in his early 30s from an apparent aneurysm brought on by a painkiller is one that has conspiracy theorists in overdrive. That, along with the accidental shooting death of his son Brandon Lee (1965-93 gunshot on set) while shooting The Crow (1994), added to the bonfire about conspiracy and the Triads.

Clouse’s Enter the Dragon is a classic of the genre, although I can’t claim to be an ardant fan of Lee and his many imitators. I liked Fist of Fury (1972) and I’m a great fan of the early Chuck Norris – he’s dubbed – film Slaughter in San Francisco (1974). Lee’s not in it! I missed Way of the Dragon (1972) which featured Norris…

Slaughter in San Francisco sat unreleased until Enter the Dragon helped launch the genre

Anyway the testosterone is bubbling over in Enter the Dragon as Lee goes to an island to more or less avenge the killing of his sister at the beginning of the movie… there’s more to it than that though. You can apparently spot Jackie Chan (1954-) in an opening sequence and again later.

Produced by Raymond Chow’s (1927-2018) Golden Harvest company which helped introduce Lee to Western audiences, Enter the Dragon was written by Michael Allin, who had no other great success except for the cult item Flash Gordon (1980).

Producer Raymond Chow with Bruce Lee

It is said, Lee was angered by Allin’s script which used the hard to pronounce – for the Chinese Lee anyway – name Mr Braithwaite, as well as cultural insensitivities by calling Hong Kong the Third World. The original title of the script was Blood and Steel and there is controversy among fans of Lee about who wrote the more philosophical dialogue about the martial arts. Many say it was Lee himself.

Bruce Lee’s tragic son Brandon was accidentally killed on the set of The Crow (1994)

Whether Clouse got the best out of Lee by treating him as a non-actor I don’t know but apparently there is much backstory in the new Blu-ray release.

As for Lee’s true potency as a fighter, Quentin Tarantino seemed to question it in his Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) when put up against Brad Pitt (1963-), who would be the Rod Taylor or William Smith of Darker than Amber. In that movie, Lee is soundly beaten on the set of The Green Hornet. Taylor, incidentally, was considered for the Saxon role but was too tall. In Lee’s only previous movie where he used his real voice, the detective thriller Marlowe (1969), James Garner calls Lee’s character “a bit gay” or something which leads to Lee in total fury to leap at Garner, only to accidentally jump off the top of a skyscraper feet first.

Lee and Garner behind the scenes on the set of Marlowe (1969)

There is no doubt Lee is a phenomenon and I am only scratching the surface here.

The choreography of martial arts sometimes make them look artificial – like some of the Jackie Chan movies – but they are also clever and balletic, reaching the point of almost an operatic greatness in some of the better scenes. And all amongst the sounds of the chop socky genre, those slaps and cracks and whips, which compare to the bullets ricocheting and gunfire of the Italian spaghetti westerns.

Choreography is the key to any fight scene. Jackie Chan makes it an art in The Big Brawl (1980) trailer. He got his start on Enter the Dragon.

“There is no technique… there is no opponent… a good fight should be like a good play,” says Lee, followed by all sorts of philosophical nonsense. I mean just kick the shit out of the guy already! And concentrate!!

The bad guy Hahn’s tournament on his island in Enter the Dragon was copied to great low budget effect in the busty female adventure The Lost Empire (1984) starring Phantasm’s (1979) Angus Scrimm (1926-2016 cancer) in the Hahn role.

The chicks in Jim Wynorski’s very amusing The Lost Empire (1984)

And the film itself is sent up quite amusingly in John Landis’ (1950-) delicious homage to movies and advertisements Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) in a long segment entitled A Fistful of Yen.

Enter the Dragon is a slick American picture and that is why I have chosen the Clouse trio. They all are. There are many better Chinese martial arts pictures but Clouse’s sterile American films are still good entertainment.

Enter the Dragon is well sent up in John Landis’ Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)

Cinematographer Gil Hubbs (no info) has framed with Clouse, clean and memorable imagery which came together despite translation troubles on the Asian set. Lalo Schifrin (1932-), whose score for Dirty Harry (1971) is iconic, has created another memorable score here.

Despite John Saxon’s hairpiece, the nominal lead with Lee is said to have also been a black belt and kicks arse with a sense of believability….

John Saxon was a black belt while his hairpiece was a brown pelt. Here with Jim Kelly.

I could go on about Enter the Dragon but as entry level Clouse, even the second unit stuff is great, it’s worth watching again and again. Clouse picked up the action left off with Taylor and Smith in Darker than Amber and upped the ante manifoldly.

Bondian villain Hahn needed a beer!

Furthermore, it doesn’t take itself too seriously with “the art of fighting without fighting” – certainly a tongue in cheek line – while Saxon’s feeling on the island that “we’re being fattened up for the kill” is a far more serious joke.

In this movie, we know we have a buffoon for a head villain, who is all very Bondian with his claw for a hand… and it all comes crashing down in a hall of mirrors… no more! Enough. Watch it already!!

Then there is Clouse’s Golden Needles (1974) aka The Chase for the Golden Needles. With Bruce Lee dead, Clouse tried to reinvent the genre with the lead being played by American Joe Don Baker (1936-), who had success with the film Walking Tall (1973), turning down its sequel.

Lalo Schifrin’s score

Clouse is working with cinematographer Hubbs again and so the images are again clean and workmanlike.

Written by Sylvia Schneble (no info), she worked on the previous year’s Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) starring William Smith, which is another minor cult item. Schneble worked with S. Lee Posgostin (1926-2014) who went on to write the Tom Selleck (1945-) adventure High Road to China (1983). I like it.

Joe Don Baker in the film which made him a star Walking Tall (1973)

Co-star of Golden Needles Burgess Meredith (1907-97 melanoma) also appeared in Pogostin’s only directorial effort, the best-forgotten and boring and talky Hard Contract (1969) starring Lee Remick (1935-91 kidney cancer) and James Coburn (1928-2002 heart attack). Coburn said Pogostin sabotaged the movie by not changing his talky script and couldn’t direct anyway.

Other stars of Golden Needles are Elizabeth Ashley (1939-), Ann Sothern (1909-2001 heart failure), Jim Kelly and Hong Kong legend Ray Chiao (1927-99 heart attack or failure).

Golden Needles stars Jim Kelly, Elizabeth Ashley and Joe Don Baker

Legend has it that Golden Needles was so disliked by the local Hong Kong population that it played one day in theatres there and earned a measly $18 dollars in local currency. Is it bull? Was word out the Triads would kill anyone who saw it? Even if they only wanted to see themselves on the big screen?! It’s a hard figure to swallow. Even if it only played one cinema. But obviously there was no fan-base for Clouse in Hong Kong in the wake of Enter the Dragon.

Anyway, no-one else I know seems to remember the film except for me and I liked it upon my first screening at home on VHS in the 1980s.

Madam Ann Sothern with Baker

The Golden Needles of the title are acupuncture needles which when used in the right place and order on the human body will bring renewed vigour and vitality to the aged and dying. They are a wonder of rejuvenation! However, if not used in the right order they will bring intense pain and a quick death.

Of course, there are those who will pay a pretty penny for the golden statuette which contains the seven needles and shows the pressure points on the body.

Clouse also wrote and directed the apocalyptic themed The Ultimate Warrior (1975)

That Golden Needles is an American International film and not a Golden Harvest film maybe another reason for its failure in Hong Kong. It could also be a pun on heroin trafficking and use and the Golden Triangle. I’m just having fun with the possibilities!

Also among the producers is Paul M. Heller (1927-) and Fred Weintraub (1928-2017) who both worked on Enter the Dragon and must have had access to the real Golden Needles considering their longevity. Lalo Schifrin is back also with another score.

Weintraub must have had treatment by the Golden Needles

The film opens with an almost silent sequence of an old man receiving treatment with the needles. It is successful and they are the real thing… but, sadly, he is incinerated along with his female companions by men in asbestos suits brandishing flame throwers. The statuette is in more demand than the Maltese Falcon (see the 1940s movie).

Ashley turns up in Hong Kong in a cowboy hat bearing money for the captured statuette but is double-crossed when more money is demanded.

“There are other powerful men in Hong Kong… and I know one or two,” says Ashley after a slit is painted on her neck by the “crazy” who wants $250,000 for “the damn statuette”.

More on Golden Needles and the “special” Gymkata in PART TWO.

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