THE CHAIRMAN (Fox,1969) TWILIGHT TIME Blu Ray July,2019. Color 98 minutes. Region Code: Region Free (A/B/C) Limited Edition of 3,000 Units $29.95
The 1960s was a time when spy stories were incredibly popular. James Bond of course became a cultural phenomenon, but also the pop culture reflected the tensions that had been growing since the Cold War began in 1947.
Most of the films dealt with the conflict between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Indeed, The Berlin Wall became a physical demarcation line for the cultural and political differences between these two superpowers.
Few stories, however, dealt with the other large Communist nation that was at social odds with the West. Red China had become Communist in 1949, and, under the leadership of Mao ZeDong, a cruel regime was established that had millions dying from starvation, or inhumane torture and imprisonment.
One of the only movies to deal with the political tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (which Mao led until his death in 1976) is the 1969 Twentieth Century Fox production, THE CHAIRMAN.
The novel was written by Jay Richard Kennedy. Kennedy worked as Harry Belafonte’s manager for years, before becoming V.P. of Sinatra Enterprises, as well as a story editor. He began to develop an idea for Sinatra (along the lines of his hit THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, UA 1962) that would film in Hong Kong, and costar Spencer Tracy and Yul Brynner. When that didn’t happen, he turned it into a novel. Kennedy had some inside knowledge of the spy game, as, feeling that Communists were infiltrating certain political groups, he also worked as an informant for the FBI and CIA.
Fox picked up the rights to the novel, and a screenplay was fashioned by Ben Maddow (who was Oscar nominated for his work on THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (MGM, 1950) before being blacklisted and forced to work uncredited through a “front” writer until 1958. Producers Mort Abrahams (who began producing early tv sci fi like TOM CORBETT,SPACE CADET,CBS ,1950-1955) and Arthur Jacob were able to bring Gregory Peck (Oscar winner for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Universal,1962) into the project (Jacobs’ formerly had a company wherein he had been Peck’s publicist) giving the project some star power.
Also added to the cast was Golden Globe nominee Anne Heywood, Tony Award winner Arthur Hill, classic film favorite Keye Luke (number one son to Warner Orland’s Charlie Chan in seven films), Burt Kwouk (Cato in six Pink Panther films),and actor Conrad Yama. Yama had been Mao in Edward Albee’s avant-garde play “Box-Mao-Box,” which premiered in Buffalo and opened on Broadway in October ,1968, which led to his casting in this film. The American actor of Japanese descent even portrayed the Chinese leader for several advertising agencies!
Action director Lee Thompson, who had directed Peck in GUNS OF NAVARONE (Columbia,1961) and CAPE FEAR (Universal,1962), was brought in to direct. Thompson also directed Peck in MACKENNA’S GOLD(Columbia,1969) that same year.
Due to the closed society of China and the film’s subject matter, the production team decided to film in Taiwan, with some exterior locations filmed in the rougher terrain of Snowdonia, Gwynedd, Wales! Some other location work was done in London, as well as some sets being built at Pinewood Studios.
The science fiction tinged tale concerns a University Professor, Dr John Hathaway (Peck) being asked to investigate a possible new Chinese discovery, which allows them to grow food in areas formerly considered too inhospitable or harsh to sustain growth prior.
A one-way transmitter is implanted into his skull (he can transmit but cannot receive messages) that also can be used as an explosive device to prevent him from falling into Chinese hands, should he be captured.
Peck goes to Hong Kong, under the pretense of visiting an old colleague (Keye Luke). Suspicion abounds, and he is the subject of intense interest by the Chinese and the Russians (who, like the U.S., do not want China to be the only mega-power with this special growth enzyme.). Things get a bit more intense when Mao himself wants to meet with the Professor.
As I am writing this, Hong Kong is in it’s second week of protests and marches against China ,while there are also massive marches taking place within Russia against their oppressive government.
This film suddenly has gone from a relic of cold war geo-politics as possibly reflective of what is to come.
When first released, the film was not a financial success, losing to audiences flocking to the flashier ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (UA). Hitchcock’s own political thriller, TOPAZ(Universal) also failed to find an audience in that summer of MIDNIGHT COWBOY (UA) and EASY RIDER (Columbia).
The Twilight Time presentation, need I say, is, as always, first rate. The Region Free (A/B/C) 1080p High Definition print is as good as one has come to expect from the company, with the work of cinematographer John Wilcox (GUNS OF NAVARONE) and an uncredited Ted Moore (A MAN FOR ALL SEASON, Columbia ,1966) shown to fill the full 2.35:1 ratio frame ,particularly in shots as the camera pans through the Hong Kong clubs or at the ending during the final chase.
The sound is available in English 2.0 DTS-HD MA or English 1.0 DTS-HD MA .The original Mono sound has been cleaned up, and I noticed no pops or hiss upon the soundtrack, but I noticed very little difference switching back and forth between the two tracks (except for the explosions seemed a bit louder on the 2.0). There is also optional English SDH that follows the dialogue and action accurately.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is available on a separate isolated music /sound effects track. Though not as strong as his score for THE SAND PEBBLES (Fox,1966), even lesser Goldsmith is superior to the best work of many other composers. The OST on CD, released in 2011, is now commanding prices of nearly $100, so this alone makes the Blu Ray a bargain.
Audio Commentary with Film Historians Eddy Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer. The duo has done many other Twilight Time commentary tracks (OUR MAN FLINT, Fox 1966), and, as usual, are very relaxed in tone but informative.
The Chairman Mini-Film – This little oddity is an abridged version of the movie, almost as if it was one of those Super 8mm versions available in the 1980s. I assume it was made to give the press an idea of the film without showing the entire production.
Two Alternate Scenes from the International Version. -Even until 1969, filmmakers were shooting two versions, one for general audiences and for more restrictive markets, and then a bit racier (i.e. female nudity) for certain foreign markets.
Original Film Trailer.
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-Kevin G Shinnick
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