American Stars in Japanese Films: LATITUDE ZERO (1969)

17 Feb

LATITUDE ZERO, directed by Ishiro Honda, is an unusual film in Toho Pictures’ filmography of sci-fi monster films. It features four Hollywood stars among the main cast members and one American newcomer in a significant role. It has a Jules Verne-style science fiction setting located underwater far from Japan. There is no central monster to be fought, just a series of smaller, lesser monsters, all rather unformidable and all in the employ of a mad scientist who can’t quite make the best use of them. Production-wise, the film’s most unique feature is the decision to shoot the entire film in English with synchronized sound, which meant all the Japanese actors with speaking parts had to be competent enough in English to make themselves understood. There may have been some post-dubbing to correct a rough patch here and there, but what you’re hearing on the English soundtrack are the actors’ actual voices, mostly recorded live on the set.

The Japanese sci-fi film which LATITUDE ZERO most closely resembles is THE GREEN SLIME (1968), from a year earlier, which had been made at Toei Pictures by Kinji Fukasaku with three Hollywood stars, Robert Horton, Luciana Paluzzi and Richard Jaeckel, and an all-western cast and was set on a space station far from Earth. I covered it in a previous entry in this series. Fukasaku would direct another space opera with an American star ten years later, MESSAGE FROM SPACE, with Vic Morrow, which I’ve also covered in a previous entry. Here are images from both films:

What’s also unusual about LATITUDE ZERO is the caliber of Hollywood star brought over for the production. Star Joseph Cotten, the film’s hero, had been a co-star of his very first Hollywood film, CITIZEN KANE (1941), made 28 years earlier, and had been an acclaimed leading man ever since. Cesar Romero, who plays the mad scientist, had been acting in Hollywood for a period of 36 years at this point and had appeared in musicals, comedies, westerns, melodramas, and historical spectacles in all that time. He’d also made a splash playing the Joker on the 1966-68 “Batman” TV series just prior to this film. No actors of Cotten’s and Romero’s stature had ever traveled to Japan before to make a Japanese film.

Joseph Cotten (center) as Capt. McKenzie, with Masumi Okada (left) and Richard Jaeckel (right) in LATITUDE ZERO

Joseph Cotten (center) as Capt. McKenzie, with Masumi Okada (left) and Richard Jaeckel (right) in LATITUDE ZERO


Cesar Romero as Malic in LATITUDE ZERO

Cesar Romero as Malic in LATITUDE ZERO

British-born Patricia Medina, Cotten’s real-life wife, plays Romero’s evil companion in LATITUDE ZERO. She had been in films since 1937, first in England and then in Hollywood after the war. She was a leading lady in swashbucklers and historical dramas in the late 1940s and ’50s, before moving to television roles in the late 1950s and ’60s. She had, like her husband, also worked with Orson Welles, starring with Welles in his 1955 KANE-like drama, MR. ARKADIN.

Richard Jaeckel had been a dependable character actor in Hollywood since 1943 and had already appeared in one Japanese sci-fi/monster film the year before, the aforementioned THE GREEN SLIME (1968).

Interestingly, of these four, only Jaeckel was ever nominated for an Oscar (for Best Supporting Actor, SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, 1971)

Florida-born and raised, Linda Haynes had only one bit part before this film and acted in films and television off and on until 1980, when she left the business for good. She’s the one inexperienced member of the American cast, although her extreme good looks offer significant compensation. She may not have the best line delivery, but she had a warm smile and an engaging presence.

The biggest name among the Japanese cast members was Akira Takarada, who had co-starred in the original GOJIRA back in 1954 and in numerous kaiju films since then (and is still occasionally active). He was Nick Adams’ astronaut partner in GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, also covered here in a previous entry.

The other main Japanese cast member was French-born Masumi Okada, son of a Japanese father and Danish mother and fluent in several languages. He would later appear in the American TV miniseries, “Shogun” (1980).

The plot is set in motion when a bathysphere carrying two scientists and a news photographer researching undersea currents is cut loose from its ship by a spurt of underwater volcanic activity and rescued by the Alpha, a Nautilus-style submarine piloted by Captain Craig McKenzie (Cotten), the senior officer of Latitude Zero, a high-tech undersea utopia that has flourished since 1805 and has regularly drawn scientific talent from the surface while keeping its existence secret. The three men rescued from the bathysphere are Dr. Ken Tashiro, a Japanese physicist and oceanographer, played by Takarada; Dr. Jules Masson, a French geologist, played by Okada; and Perry Lawton, who works for Trans Globe News, played by Jaeckel. Haynes plays Anne Barton, a scantily clad medical doctor from Latitude Zero who tends the rescued men aboard the Alpha.

Romero, in a flowing cape, plays McKenzie’s rival and sworn enemy, Malic, who operates from an outpost on Blood Rock, a rocky uncharted isle not far from Latitude Zero. His assistant is Lucretia, played by Medina. After the rescue of the bathysphere trio, the Alpha comes under attack from Malic’s submarine, the Black Shark, piloted by leather-clad female captain Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki). The Alpha has a few tricks up its sleeve, enabling McKenzie to escape the attack and get back to Latitude Zero safely, where a force field keeps out the Black Shark.

After his visitors get settled in their new surroundings and given new clothes, McKenzie shows them around Latitude Zero, a colony lit, warmed and powered by an artificial sun, all depicted through some lavish sets and beautiful matte paintings.

Malic devises a plan to lure the Alpha out of Latitude Zero by intercepting Japanese scientist Dr. Okada (Tetsu Nakamura) and his daughter Tsuruko (Mari Nakayama), who had been recruited by Latitude Zero and en route there when the Black Shark attacks the ship the Okadas are on. Both McKenzie and Malic want Dr. Okada’s anti-radiation formula and Malic prepares to torture Okada to get it.

Okada’s homing device signals to McKenzie where he is, so McKenzie prepares to launch a raid on Blood Rock to rescue the Okadas, helped by his assistant Koubo and his three visitors, as well as Dr. Barton, who operates the sub while McKenzie & co. raid the island in invulnerable gold “corvexo” suits with gloves that boast ingenious weapons and rocket packs for flight. All six had bathed in the “bath of immunity” beforehand to make their bodies impervious to outside penetration for 24 hours.

Meanwhile, the cruel Malic punishes Kroiga for her failure to stop McKenzie by transplanting her brain into the head of a lion and grafting wings from a condor in order to create the mythical beast, Griffin, which he can then control—or so he thinks. It all culminates in an action-packed, effects-filled confrontation on Blood Rock, with menacing giant rats, walking bat men, the flying Griffin, and assorted laser beams and other lethal rays. Then there’s a peaceful return to Latitude Zero for the resolution of the protagonists’ destinies and a return to the surface for one character in a puzzling coda.

From a special effects standpoint, the film offers an impressive showcase for some of the skills of special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, who had been doing the effects of all of the Toho monster/sci-fi films from GOJIRA on. (After his death in 1970, his company would continue to do special effects for numerous sci-fi adventure TV shows and movie spin-offs, including the entire Ultraman franchise.) The emphasis here is on the miniatures employed to show the underwater craft and their various chases and battles; the sets and background art used to depict the utopian landscapes of Latitude Zero; and the studio sets used for the forbidding terrain of Blood Rock.

The film creates a world and then guides us through it and, in the case of Latitude Zero itself, makes us want to live there, thanks to its tranquil and beautiful environment. When a fantasy adventure manages to do this, I consider myself satisfied. And it doesn’t happen very often.

On the other hand, the costumes used for the monsters, all played by actors in unconvincing animal getup, are rather poorly designed. When I first saw this film at a neighborhood theater back in 1971, I’m quite certain the audience laughed at the lion, the condor, the rats and the bat men. I have to confess I laughed at these creatures when I watched the film again this past week. I couldn’t help it.

Still, I must say that the concept of a lion with the brain of a betrayed henchwoman who retains her consciousness even in lion form was intriguing.

Joseph Cotten plays the part straight and conducts himself like a traditional American movie commander with dignity, resolve, and an even temper. Even in the midst of some truly outlandish goings-on, he never breaks character or winks at the audience. He believes completely in what’s happening in front of him. (This is, of course, true of pretty much every cast member in films like this.)

Cotten was about 63 when he made this and, according to his 1987 autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, was deathly ill with the Asian flu during the final stages of filming. Eager to get to a doctor in the U.S., he agreed to a day’s filming of the last closeups needed, with the remainder of his part to be done in long shot with a double. I read this after seeing the film (twice) for this writeup and I could only think of one scene where he looked a little out of sorts.

It’s still quite a culture shock to see the venerable Cotten flying around in a gold jumpsuit and shooting laser beams out of his glove. This is, after all, the man who played Jed Leland, the drama critic of the New York Inquirer, in CITIZEN KANE; Eugene Morgan, a rival of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS; the sinister Uncle Charlie in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, SHADOW OF A DOUBT; Holly Martins, the mystified pulp fiction writer searching for the elusive Harry Lime in postwar Vienna in THE THIRD MAN; and painter Eben Adams who creates the title artwork in the midst of Depression-era Manhattan in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, covered here in a previous entry.

Interestingly, when Cotten was interviewed by the Japanese press about his career while in Tokyo for LATITUDE ZERO, he noted that they were more interested in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE than in the film he was about to make.

Cesar Romero, fresh off the triumph of playing what would become his best-known role, the Joker in “Batman,” hams it up with flourish, laughing, sneering, grinning and relishing every stroke of evil he manages to achieve. He and Medina seem perfectly at home among the laughably horrid creatures Malic has created and it helps make these scenes more bearable. I watched this film on February 15, which would have been the actor’s 110th birthday. He was about 61 when he made this.

Medina shares the screen with her husband, Cotten, in only one scene and all of four shots, before dying an ignominious death:

Jaeckel functions as something of a comic relief figure, the eager photographer constantly snapping pictures and quick with a wisecrack or complaint and ogling as many of the gorgeous women in Latitude Zero as he encounters. (Sadly, he’s the only member of the trio from the surface who doesn’t end up with a mate.)

As such, his character represents quite a contrast with his GREEN SLIME character, laden with resentment from an earlier beef with the hero of that film and the fact that they’re both in love with the same woman.

Still, it should be noted that Jaeckel’s Perry Lawton is the only character to bring up the one element of social critique aimed at Captain McKenzie in the entire film. He notes the level of scientific advancement on display throughout the colony known as Latitude Zero and the talent culled from the surface to develop it and asks McKenzie why it’s not shared with the surface. The good captain insists that they share the information covertly through their agents on the surface, although no specific examples are outlined. I would have asked for more details if I were in Lawton’s position.

Haynes’ character develops a romantic relationship with one of the three scientists, Dr. Masson. It’s not quite interracial since the character is identified as French, although the actor is clearly part-Japanese.

Tetsu Nakamura, who plays Dr. Okada, was fluent in English and appeared in many co-productions with America, including two of the earliest, TOKYO FILE 212 (1951) and GEISHA GIRL (1952), and, later, THE MANSTER (1961).

Tetsu Nakamura and Mari Nakayama in LATITUDE ZERO

Tetsu Nakamura and Mari Nakayama in LATITUDE ZERO

Akihiko Hirata plays Dr. Barton’s Latitude Zero colleague, Dr. Sugata, in one scene. He was one of Akira Takarada’s co-stars in the original GOJIRA and in many other kaiju films in the 15 years between it and LATITUDE ZERO.

Susumu Kurobe plays one of the henchmen on the enemy sub. A veteran of dozens of Godzilla and Ultraman credits, he appeared in one Hollywood film, NONE BUT THE BRAVE, covered here in the Frank Sinatra Centennial piece in 2015, as well as the Woody Allen spoof, WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY?, which was a comically re-dubbed version of a Japanese film, THE KEY OF KEYS.

There are two Japanese actresses with speaking parts in this, Mari Nakayama as Dr. Okada’s daughter, Tsuruko, and Hikaru Kuroki as Kroiga, captain of Malic’s submarine, the Black Shark. Both are unknown to me beyond this film. Nakayama has a sparse filmography and Kuroki never made another film as far as I can tell.

The one other significant Japanese part is Koubo, Cotten’s muscular assistant, who speaks only Japanese in the film (in both versions) and is played by an actor named Omae but is identified with a different given name in every cast list I have found for the film.

While LATITUDE ZERO itself makes no comment on U.S.-Japan relations, the crew interviews included as an extra on the Media Blasters/Tokyo Shock DVD edition involve quite a lot of discussion about the differences between Japanese and Hollywood methods of production, all from a handful of Japanese crew members, although they don’t go into much depth. I wish there had been an interview with someone from the American side like Linda Haynes, the one surviving cast member, or Patricia Medina, who was still alive when these interviews were done. Teruyoshi Nakano, assistant director of special effects, claims that the Americans looked down on the Japanese and their way of doing things and questioned how Japan was capable of even making such a film.

But the only specific difference he cites is the American preference for setting up three cameras to get the action from three angles and let the actors move freely in the space and then choose alternating shots from those angles, while the Japanese do one shot and one angle at a time, which is actually pretty much how most serious Hollywood directors do it as well. He claims that director Honda tried it the “American” way for a couple of days but then concluded that it would be more efficient the Japanese way.

Assistant Director Seiji Tani describes how an actor named Henry Okawa, who had made several Hollywood films and spoke fluent English, acted as an interpreter and because he was an actor and knew how to talk to other actors, he could mediate successfully between them and the crew.

Nakano describes a dispute over Medina’s death scene which originally called for Cotten to use her as a human shield when Romero lunges with his scalpel. The American producer, Warren Lewis, insisted that an American hero would never use a woman as a shield, so they had to come up with some kind of compromise that showed Cotten pushing her away only to be caught between Romero and Cotten.

Nakano also describes how the American producer (presumably Lewis) insisted that the miniatures look real and not like toys and that they use real objects and real sets where possible. When Nakano showed him an underwater scene, the producer was convinced they’d done what he asked, except that it was a miniature.

The biggest problem between Toho Pictures and its American partners occurred when the original co-producer, Don Sharpe, whose credits were chiefly in 1950s television, went bankrupt not long after the start of filming and was unable to pay the American cast members. After some tense negotiations in a Tokyo hotel room with some angry Hollywood stars, Toho agreed to take up the slack, partly to avoid having to shut down production and partly to save face with Cotten and Romero. Cotten’s autobiographical chapter on this film focuses mostly on this financial matter and on his later bout with the flu, with very little about the actual production and no mention of either Jaeckel or Haynes, nor any of the Japanese actors.

Tani has kind words about Jaeckel, whom he describes as a “party animal”:

In that sense, Jaeckel was like Nick Adams, star of FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, who was also well liked by the Japanese cast and crew members.

The Tokyo Shock edition includes two discs, the U.S. release version (in English) and the subtitled Japanese release version which is post-dubbed in Japanese for all the actors and is 16 minutes shorter than the U.S. version. I watched the Japanese version second and didn’t notice anything significant missing. I’m guessing they cut down the underwater sub pursuit and some of the endless shots of crafts in motion.

Toho’s experience with its American partner apparently soured them on the prospect of any co-productions with the U.S. for the foreseeable future. The next big Japan-U.S. co-production was TORA! TORA! TORA!, a dramatic epic about Pearl Harbor released the next year. But the Japanese partner on that one was Toei, not Toho. As far as I can determine, the next co-production between Toho and an American company was the TV miniseries, “Shogun” (1980), which was made for American television. And Toho was one of two Japanese partners with Paramount Pictures and NBC-TV on the project. I suspect they lent production facilities in exchange for some distribution rights in Japan.

LATITUDE ZERO may not have the epic interplanetary scope of MESSAGE FROM SPACE nor the intensity and suspense of GREEN SLIME nor the layered characters and human drama we see in the Nick Adams movies, but it does capture the sense of unabashed fun, exaggerated action and wild imagination we used to see in old serials like FLASH GORDON and BUCK ROGERS, not to mention the similarly themed UNDERSEA KINGDOM. I was also reminded of the 1960s anime series, “Cyborg 009,” which was airing in Japan when this film was made and may have influenced it in some way. Malic’s operation looked to be a small-scale version of the criminal empire known as Black Ghost, which was seen in that series. And the heroes of LATITUDE ZERO, all tricked up in their superhero outfits, constitute a super team not unlike the cyborg heroes of C009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: