Monday, March 09, 2009

Film Review: CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975)




"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 32










CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975 Warner Brothers) Starring Tamara Dobson, Norman Fell, Stella Stevens, Tanny, Albert Popwell, Caro Kenyatta. Directed by Charles Bail.


U.S. agents Popwell and Kenyatta are missing in Hong Kong following an unsuccessful sting on ruthless, drug-dealing lesbian casino owner Stevens. Dobson's title character arrives to investigate, with nominal assistance from government superior Fell and more substantial help from sympathetic local Tanny. Once Dobson realizes who's behind the disappearance, she plots to turn the tables on Stevens, but it won't be easy--she's rich, powerful and an expert with a sword.


The second and (sadly) final CLEOPATRA JONES has, on the surface, much in common with the classic first film. Once again we have a blonde lesbian drug lord (though Stevens is a lot easier on the eyes than Shelley Winters) for Cleo to battle while she's working overseas to undermine the drug trade in the United States. Dobson, Popwell and Kenyatta all reprise their roles, and Dobson continues wearing outrageous 1970's fashions and displaying proficiency in martial arts.


The change to the sexier but equally campy Stevens as villainess is only one indicator of an increase in the Bond influence and a lighter tone this time around. Max Julien is out and William Tennant takes over full writing duties and there's no scene as gritty as the first film's disturbing portrayal of withdrawal symptoms. In addition, J. J. Johnson (SHAFT, TROUBLE MAN, THE FUZZ BROTHERS, WILLIE DYNAMITE among others) is out and western/TV specialist Dominic Frontiere (BARQUERO) is in as composer, and the theme song "Playin' with Fire" sounds nothing like the typical soundtrack for a Dobson (or Grier, or Williamson...) film. CASINO OF GOLD feels more like a Run Run Shaw production (he co-produced with Tennant) than a blaxploitation entry and if not for Dobson's presence, this one likely wouldn't get lumped into the genre at all.

Not to say this is a bad film, not at all---just an odd duck. I'd estimate it at 2/5ths Bond, 2/5ths Shaw and 1/5th blaxploitation. It's still a lot of fun to see Dobson being such a wiseass to everyone (especially Fell) and there are nifty action sequences on a ship, in the titular casino, on a deserted street and inside Tanny's apartment. Just be sure to suspend your disbelief a few times: I can't understand why Tanny would leave her door unlocked and open before taking a shower (she and Dobson have been followed already!) and the 'insurance' that Popwell and Kenyatta take with the money seems like overkill to me, for starters.


Dobson's clothing is always a highlight, but the gorgeous 6'2" model isn't looking quite as foxy as she did in the first JONES---too much unnecessary silver eye shadow IMO. The actress did her own makeup according to the credits, so Cleo isn't perfect. Still, Dobson winks to the camera almost as effectively as Roger Moore and seems to be having a lot more fun with the role the second time around. It is a real shame that Dobson didn't have the opportunity to star in a third JONES adventure. But with this film, FRIDAY FOSTER and SHEBA, BABY all disappointing at the box office within a few months in 1975, Dobson and Pam Grier were both back in supporting roles in their subsequent features.



So....why isn't this on DVD yet? (In the U.S.)

Dobson never did nudity, and pushed for a reduction in sex and gore in her films, so CASINO OF GOLD doesn't quite have the titillation factor of Pam Grier's films. Coincidentally or not, all of Grier's 1970's AIP-ers are out on DVD, with 3 available in the "Fox in a Box" set. In addition, Cleopatra doesn't even have a boyfriend this time out, so all exploitation elements are left to the "adopted daughters" of Stevens, in brief scenes as they attend to the needs of Popwell and Kenyatta.

A rather ambitious mixture of genres exploring the global nature of Ms. Jones' job, CASINO OF GOLD was misleadingly promoted as blaxploitation when released, which may have contributed to subpar box office returns--the genre was fading commercially by 1975.


Why it should be on DVD:

The first CLEOPATRA JONES film is slightly better IMO, but they should both be on DVD for sure. Dobson is no Pam Grier in terms of acting ability, but she is charismatic and statuesque, and her only two starring vehicles should be widely available--though the 1973 original is out on DVD, it's not easy to find.


It's just too easy to picture this one on Wal-Mart shelves as part of a "2 for 1" with the first CLEOPATRA JONES. I mean, why hasn't this happened yet? Come on!

The out of print VHS is full screen only, and this unique, exciting film could use a widescreen digital remastering.
Great moments in history: the very first "Fell Take"!
It's a lot of fun to see: Stella Stevens' camping (Shelley Winters was over the top in the first film; Stevens is a big improvement); Norman Fell giving us an early version of the 'Fell Take' at the conclusion of his first scene and further foreshadowing his immediate future by playing a character named...Stanley; and Dobson's wisecracking, particularly in the casino scene, in which Cleo tells the intrigued Stevens what brought her there: her "beautiful money!".