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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Mastermind (Blu-ray)
Mastermind (Blu-ray)
Kino // G // May 15, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 16, 2018 | E-mail the Author
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A profoundly wrong-headed spoof of Charlie Chan movies, filmed in Japan, Mastermind is fascinating for reasons having little to do with the quality of the film, which is mediocre at best.

The project began as part of a two-picture deal with neophyte producer Malcolm Stuart and writer William Peter Blatty, then a novelist-turned-screenwriter specializing in comedies. (Blatty's signature work, the novel The Exorcist, came later.) He'd most famously worked on adapting the Harry Kurnitz play that would be radically reshaped by Blatty and director and co-writer Blake Edwards into A Shot in the Dark (1964), arguably the best of the Pink Panther movies.

However, by the time Mastermind was filmed in Japan in 1969, this time Blatty had been rewritten by blacklisted Brit Ian McLellan Hunter, a scribe with virtually no experience in or talent for comedy, while much of the picture seems to have been retooled to accommodate the talents of star Zero Mostel, who headlined the Stuart-Blatty collaboration The Great Bank Robbery (also 1969), made immediately before or after this. Blatty had his name removed from Mastermind's credits, and no wonder.

The Great Bank Robbery flopped but at least it got released. Mastermind reportedly sat on the shelf for seven years before a perfunctory, limited theatrical run in the U.S. in 1976, though other sources insist it remained unseen until a home video version decades later. It does seem possible that the film wasn't completely finished until 1976, as its musical score and title design seem more in line with that era than in the style of a 1969 production. And, yet, Mastermind is not without interest. It has a one-of-a-kind cast, interesting locations, and Zero is in there slugging away.

Kino's Blu-ray looks fantastic but has a major audio problem. Though monophonic, it appears the dialogue and music/sound effects tracks were isolated, DTSified, and put back together again, but with the dialogue mixed too low almost to the point of it being unintelligible in some scenes. For instance, an early nightclub sequence has the music and crowd noises mixed so high that it's almost impossible to hear what the actors in the scene are saying. In other scenes, one is required to turn the volume way up to catch the dialogue, but then a gunshot or slammed door nearly blows out one's speakers. The absence of subtitle options doesn't help.


The short (86 minutes) film has virtually no comprehensible plot, and what little it has in the way of a story is padded with pointless, confusing fantasy sequences. Kyoto-based detective Inspector Hoku Ishihara (Zero Mostel) is such a genius leaders from across the globe have set up hotlines at his residence, frequently calling him for advice and to play chess. He and his assistant, Nigel Crouchback (Scottish stage actor Gawn Grainger) are assigned to look after a pint-sized android, Schatzi (Felix Silla), created by a German toy inventor but coveted by foreign agents for its potential military applications. Beautiful Nikki Kono (Keiko Kishi, The Yakuza) figures into all this somehow, though Ishihara is so infatuated with her he repeatedly dismisses suggestions of her involvement. There's also Police Captain Yamada (Frankie Sakai, the star of Mothra), who inexplicably but repeatedly attempts ritual suicide, seppuku. Some of the time Ichihara imagines he's a samurai warrior in scenes spoofing Japanese swordplay (chanbara) movies, curiously depicted as silent movies with English-subtitled dialogue.

Part-spy spoof, part-Charlie Chan parody, part-science fiction, part-slapstick comedy, Mastermind is a master-mess. The original Charlie Chan movies made by Fox in the 1930s and starring Warner Oland and, later, the earliest ones with Sidney Toler, were generally delightful. Though Oland and Toler weren't anymore Chinese than Mostel, the Chan character was highly intelligent with gentlemanly manners, his halting speech and effusiveness often a clever ruse to trick suspects who implicitly believed him inferior. (In this sense, the Chan films anticipate Columbo, which operates from a similar conceit.) Integral to the success of those movies was Chan's relationship with his large family, especially his excitable, thoroughly Americanized "Number One Son," usually played with great charm by Keye Luke.

In Mastermind, Mostel really does closely physically resemble a kind of fusing of the Oland and Toler Chans, and his dialogue has much of the flavor of the original films. But that's it. He's not Chinese but Japanese (despite a very Chinese mustache), as if the writers thought the two cultures were entirely interchangeable. He has no family, and the schizophrenic screenplay alternately depicts him as a Holmesian genius in some scenes and an Inspector Clouseau-type bumbler the rest of the time. The frantic slapstick chase near the end plainly emulates the madcap chase from Richard Lester's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) which, of course, also starred Mostel.

In the fantasy sequences, Mostel looks rather like Japanese star Tomisaburo Wakayama during his "Lone Wolf" period, but Mostel's comic appeal lay mostly in his rubbery, expressive face, not his physical prowess. As a swordsman, he rarely takes more than a few steps at a time, and much of this action is sped-up to give it some energy. In the end, casting an actor with the wild-eyed exuberance and larger-than-life personality of Mostel to play the placid, reticent Chan would seem almost perverse, though Zero almost pulls it off.

The rat-a-tat-tat gags and Mostel's clowning don't add up to much because the plot is nearly nonexistent and the characters are broad stereotypes the audience doesn't care about. The tone shifts herky-jerky to the point where it's hard to even tell what it's about, or why anyone might find it funny. (For all its fault it is more enjoyable than the other Chan spoof, 1981's Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.)

The most intriguing thing about Mastermind is its setting, filmed as it was entirely in and around Kyoto, Japan with Japanese actors in big, English-speaking roles. Keiko Kishi and Frankie Sakai were notable film stars at the time, Kishi in movies directed by Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi and others, and who flirted with an international career for many years. Sakai may be best known to western audiences as the Lou Costello-like reporter in Mothra, but was hugely popular as one of the stars of the "Company President" comedy films, as a jazz drummer, and for several acclaimed dramatic film roles, including the later miniseries Shogun, in which he finally got to kill himself. Tetsu Nakamura, who shared scenes with Sakai in Mothra and best remembered as the scientist who creates The Manster, also appears.

The City of Kyoto gets a workout in Mastermind, with major thoroughfares and tiny alleyways alike, all over the city, used for the big chase especially. While still recognizable, the Kyoto of 1969 still retained much of its old world charm, before so much of it was bulldozed to make room for all the glass and steel buildings that sadly overrun the city today. The film crew seemed to have been given carte blanche, unrestricted access, and it's hard to imagine the logistics of such filming being allowed anywhere in Japan today. As a historical document, Mastermind has at least some minor value there.

Video & Audio

As noted above the 1.78:1 widescreen presentation of Mastermind at least looks fantastic, as well it should. Probably fewer than 25 theatrical prints were ever struck. But as previously mentioned the DTS-HD Master Audio drowns out the dialogue track with the music/sound effects one, seriously compromising the watchability of the disc. No subtitles or Extra Features, and Region "A" encoded.

Parting Thoughts

Hopefully Kino will do the right thing: fix the audio and offer replacement discs. We'll see. In the meantime, Mastermind is definitely a curiosity piece; not good but certainly unique. Rent It.





Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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