Fanfare for a Death Scene

Fanfare for a Death SceneAndrea mentioned watching the beginning of a film in which Telly Savalas played a Chinese man, Fanfare for a Death Scene. Well, I had to see that! To me, Savalas will always been the Tootsie Pop sucking, “Who loves ya, baby?” spouting police detective in Kojak. I’ve seen him in other things, so I knew he could act. But I was expecting that his role in this film would be a racist outrage that was good kitschy fun.

The film itself was made for television in 1964. It’s a Cold War artifact where the main character, Stryker (played by Richard Egan), is convinced that all our concern about the Soviet Union and Red China is misplaced. There is actually a Mongol leader who is, “The smartest, most dangerous, most vicious man in the world today.” His name is Elchidai Khan. Cue the dramatic music. Khan, of course, is played by Telly Savalas. And other than giving him an outrageous Genghis Khan mustache, they don’t do much to make him look Mongolian. Overall, it’s a downright positive portrayal.

Khan is presented as a demigod. He has video cameras planted seemingly everywhere, including Stryker’s palatial home. So he is always a half dozen steps ahead of Stryker and the American government. Most of the time we see Khan is as he watches what is going on in the plot via video. He manages to be defeated at the end, but only in his efforts to get the schizophrenic nuclear scientist (played with one-note intensity by Burgess Meredith). Khan, of course, is miles, if not nations, away.

And given this ending, I wonder whether Fanfare for a Death Scene wasn’t intended to be the pilot for a series. I can well see why it wasn’t picked up. The good guys are all dull as dishwater. Today, they might make the show focusing on the bad guys. That would be pretty interesting. Khan spends pretty much all of his time laughing to himself about the chess game that he is clearly winning against the west. He has two beautiful and dangerous women around him too. One of them is played by Tina Louise, Ginger Grant on Gilligan’s Island. And it wasn’t until seeing this movie that I realized just how beautiful she was.

The Stryker character works well enough. But I was especially struck with how the writers decided to make the audience realize he was a good guy. In addition to being a secret agent, he is the head of a company. And speaking to his managers, he said, “Four new plants means 4,000 new jobs… Gentlemen, our job is to provide more jobs for more people… You take care of the working men and they take care of production.” (As you can see, much of the dialog in the film is weak.) Can you imagine that kind of pandering to the working class today? Now it would just be assumed that a rich man was good—as long as he didn’t do something like kick a dog.[1] Hell, corporate raider Gordon Gekko was meant to be a villain in 1987, yet most Americans saw him as a hero.

But the film is otherwise hopeless. The only reason to watch it is to see Telly Savalas’ Mongol lord. And you can see an almost nine minute long scene if you you skip to 47:15. It is quite charming. As for the remaining hour: don’t waste your time.

An intelligent enemy is better than a foolish friend —Elchidai Khan

Update (16 April 2014 7:24 pm)

I first started writing about the film because the trumpet has a central part in it. And there is a famous trumpet player in it who I immediately recognized as Al Hirt. It’s actually surprising that I recognized him, because I’m not a huge fan. But he was great:

[1] My understanding is that this would make him a “dog villain.” The idea is that the alpha villain comes into town and kills the sheriff. The beta villain comes into town and kills the deputy. The third villain (more or less representative of the rest of the gang), comes into town and kicks a dog. To most people, that would make the dog villain the worst of the three.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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