Monday, April 12, 2010

Movie Monday - Secret of the Incas

People are starting to talk about this one as one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones, so I might as well jump on that bandwagon. It was released in 1954, featuring Charlton Heston as the "hero," several now-familiar faces from 60's and 70's television in supporting roles, and a host of big names in the crew--Wally Westmore on make-up, Edith Head on costumes, John Fulton doing special effects. And it even opens with the Paramount mountain. So why have you probably never heard of it?

We'll get to that.

The film opens with Harry Steele (Heston) as a tour guide in Cusco, Peru, scraping what money he can by fooling tourists just off the plane into thinking he was sent by the airline to show them around. Harry is a rough-and-tumble guy who wears a familiar-looking ensemble.

Here's another look at the full schmeer.

The bloused pants tucked into the boots look a little high-water and the ascot looks a little silly, but overall, he's got the Indy look (though to be fair, other heroes from 40's serials had similar looks). And his rugged, tall good looks are catnip to the tourist ladies, including Richie Cunningham's mom.

Another local expatriate by the name of Ed Morgan, a guy with some shady connections, wants to hire Harry for a job, and also to ask about a certain stone that has turned up missing--a stone that points the way to a legendary Incan relic made of gold and covered with diamonds.

Steele turns Morgan down, and shortly afterward, someone takes a potshot at him.

Peril! Unfortunately for the sniper, he was told to miss on purpose. Even more unfortunately, Steel hates being shot at and takes out his anger on the hit man before confronting Morgan. Morgan wants Harry to cut him in on the treasure, but Steele claims to know nothing about the stone.

And then the Dame shows up in the bar, flustering a nameless patron.

That's Alvy Moore. His face, if not his name, would become well-known in households across America as Hank Kimball on Green Acres. But back to the dame. She's gorgeous.

Her name is Elena Antonescu. She has fled to South America from Romania, behind the Iron Curtain, and wants Harry to take her to the U.S. (she just happens to be that "job" Morgan was trying to set Harry up with). Having spent some time supporting herself as an "entertainer," she knows how to manipulate men. But Harry's a tougher nut to crack. He wants nothing to do with her until he finds out that the Soviet official chasing her has his own private plane. Harry just happens to need a plane.

Harry rats her out, then the two of them steal the Soviet's plane in the middle of the night and fly north. Elena thinks Harry's taking her to Mexico, but Harry takes them on a detour to Machu Picchu. He does have the stone showing the location of the ancient golden sunburst, and he plans to get rich off it. And on the way, he indulges in a little jungle romance with Elena.

Unfortunately for them, Machu Picchu is a little crowded when they arrive. There's an archaeological expedition there, opening up the very tomb that Steele has come to raid. The expedition is led by Dr. Marcus Welby, M.D.

That's Robert Young as Dr. Stanley Moorehead, an American archaeologist. He has just uncovered an ancient mummy which the crowd of assembled Incas venerate as part of the fulfillment of a prophecy that will restore the greatness of their people. Moorehead immediately falls for Elena, and though he has feelings for her himself, Steele gladly throws her at the professor to keep him occupied while Steele tracks down the sunburst.

And up to this point, the film has been a pretty taut adventure, with Heston surprisingly grimy and edgy as a greedy, two-fisted anti-hero, with an interest in archaeology (but only as far as it pays). Then the Incas decide to perform a ritual in honor of the mummy, and suddenly, it's a musical.

That's Yma Sumac, who had become reasonably famous as a singer with an incredible range, able to go from low alto to nearly ultrasonic mezzo-soprano screeches in seconds. She sings a couple of songs in the film, incomprehensible foreign mutterings (authentic Quechua? who knows?) alternating with otherwordly trills that sound almost like they came from a Theremin. Oh, and lots of goofy faces.

At this point, the film seems to lose focus, going off on a couple of different tracks. Elena is torn between Steele, a tall, handsome rogue who is using her to get rich, and the professor, a shy, bookish dude who proposes to her after knowing her for only one day (and who can get her guaranteed entry to America). Meanwhile, the Inca continue to celebrate the opening of the tomb while Steele wanders around waiting for his chance to steal the sunburst. It's almost as if the filmmakers realized they didn't have enough script for a full feature, or maybe they were running out of budget, so they just decided to pad it out with musical numbers and stock footage. But the energy and tension of the movie's first half just drains away.

Anyway, Steel sneaks off during the night to track down the sunburst in a scene that fans now reference as the inspiration of the map room scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

But there's a fly in the ointment, a monkey in the wrench. Ed Morgan has figured out where Steele was headed and followed him, and takes the sunburst for himself, leading to the big anti-climax.

It's not a bad movie overall. It's certainly got its good points, especially in the first half, and it could well have served as one of the inspirations for the later Lucas/Spielberg films. But watching something like this leaves me a little torn.

On the one hand, I like the simplicity of it, the rawness. And I do get tired of the formulaic nature of every big studio film now, the way every single film looks like it has been run through the Truby plot press fifty times until all the interesting wrinkles have been ironed out.

But on the other hand, formulas become formulas because they work, and "Secret of the Incas" could have used a little formula in the second half to build the kind of memorable, emotionally satisfying climax that might have made the film a hit in its own right, rather than a virtually forgotten public-domain footnote to a much superior film.

The film can be watched in pieces at Youtube here.

1 comment:

James Byrne said...

Tony Frazier, very entertaining blog on the marvellous Heston movie SECRET OF THE INCAS, the real precursor to Indiana Jones.