Kendra Steiner Editions (Bill Shute)

April 6, 2020

Stay-At-Home Film #1: MISTRESS OF THE WORLD (Germany, 1960)

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 7:05 pm
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Recently on the KSE Facebook page, I listed 20 albums I listened to over a 4 or 5 day period. Since I’m now “working at home” due to the Coronavirus and try not to go out much, I was listening to more music than ever. I do “work” all day from home and am connected to Zoom, but there’s no commute, etc., so I wind up with more time for myself. Some of that time each day, I’m exercising. I’m also watching more films.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some info on the next 20 films I will watch. Comments will be kept to a minimum. I hope to introduce you to a number of worthwhile films you might not be aware of, or if you’ve heard of them, might not have seen. Here is the first:


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MISTRESS OF THE WORLD (aka in German: Die Herrin der Welt, French: Les mystères d’Angkor, Italian: Il mistero dei tre continenti), Germany 1960. Notice that the Mexican lobby card above changes MISTRESS to MYSTERIES, as surely MYSTERIES OF THE WORLD would sell more tickets than MISTRESS!

Directed by William Dieterle (film completed by cinematographer Richard Angst)

Starring Martha Hyer, Carlos Thompson, Sabu, Lino Ventura, Micheline Presle

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Running time of the French language version, 122 minutes.

I acquired a French-language copy of this unique film about five years ago. Watching about half of it then, I felt it was curiously old-fashioned and it reminded me in some ways of a 1930’s or 1940’s serial, minus the cliffhanger chapter endings and the over-the-top mysterious masked villain. Stuck at home now, I decided to give it another try a few days ago, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Also, doing a little research, I see that it was a remake of a 1919 German serial! One wonders if it was made after the success of Fritz Lang’s two-part Indian epic from 1958 starring Debra Paget. That too felt like a serial and was directed by a German who’d been working in Hollywood for decades but who came back home to direct an old-fashioned genre film with an exotic international setting. William Dieterle directed many successful films in the Hollywood studio system, perhaps most memorably the 1939 version of the HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME starring Charles Laughton. Evidently, he walked off this film during location shooting in Cambodia during the final days of shooting and the cinematographer finished it.

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It starts off as almost a science-fiction film then veers off into espionage then (during the parts in Marseilles, France, with Lino Ventura doing his patented tough cop-abusing-suspects while maintaining his cool routine) police action then Southeast Asian mystery then goes in an almost spiritual direction shot on location at the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.

One of a number of interesting foreign films made by Martha Hyer in the 1960’s (also recommended are PYRO with Barry Sullivan, made in Spain, and HOUSE OF 1000 DOLLS with George Nader and Vincent Price, made “offshore” in Asia by legendary producer Harry Alan Towers), MISTRESS OF THE WORLD also gives a meaty part to Indian-American actor SABU, for once wearing a business suit, playing a scientist, and not playing the usual “movie Indian” in jungle adventures and Kipling-esque tales. In some ways, he is truly the hero of the film, along with the Argentinian actor Carlos Thompson. For the final half hour of the film, he shaves his head and becomes a holy man in the Angkor Wat temple, negotiating the climactic scenes at the film’s end. He was probably quite proud of his work here.

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There are multiple versions of the film. In Germany, like the Lang film mentioned above, this was presented as two feature films over two nights, running for a total of three hours. There is also a version running around 90 minutes, presumably focusing on the “action.” The French print (where, understandably, Micheline Presle is top-billed) I own runs 122 minutes. With the episodic nature of the film, one could add or subtract any number of scenes that don’t involve key plot points and no one would be the wiser.

Another observation about MISTRESS OF THE WORLD is that I can’t remember a film I’ve seen in the last 6 months that features key characters killed off out of the blue when one is least expecting it. This happens to three of them. I actually cried aloud, “what?,” even though no one else was in the room.

Sinister Cinema offers an English-language version of this, taken from 16mm, probably a TV print. The French-language version I have features rich color, an excellent transfer, and looks like it was shot yesterday.

As a conscious homage to serial-style film making, in the pre- James Bond/Dr. No era, we can forgive the outrageously hyperbolic music that telegraphs suspense with a sledgehammer anytime a sinister character walks into a room or someone crosses a busy street.

Stuck at home, I also appreciated the travelogue aspect of the film, in beautiful color and widescreen….I’m not going to be getting to Stockholm, Marseilles, Nice, Bangkok, and Cambodia soon, and all these areas are full of choice local details and culture in their presentation here.

I came into this film with few expectations, but it kept me occupied for over two hours, it threw me many curves, it was well-paced but also leisurely in a good way, and it ended on a positive note with even a twist of spiritual depth to it.

For an old-fashioned adventure film that’s got both feet planted firmly in the 1950’s (despite its 1960 release date), MISTRESS OF THE WORLD was quite good and worthwhile. Catch it if you can find it and you’re so inclined….

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