The Madmen of Mandoras (1963) is all kinds of awful and awesome, an ambitious espionage thriller about Hitler’s head living head in a jar, parked on a tropical island and barking orders to an army and worldwide sleeper cells. Director David Bradley knew movies inside out, made experimental pictures and was known as a fine educator at UCLA, but in this case had trouble translating his grand ideas with a low budget.*
A professor, John Coleman (John Holland) develops an antidote to G-Gas (a deadly nerve gas that knocks down elephants) and is kidnapped by Nazis operating out of the Caribbean island of Mandoras. They plan to gas the world and want the antidote to protect themselves. One of the professor’s daughters, Kathy (Audrey Caire), and her husband Phil (Walter Stocker) are tipped off to the plot by a mysterious informant (Carlos Rivas) who’s assassinated in their car. They dump him in the first phone booth and travel all by themselves to Mandoras to find the professor and save the world from the Nazis. There, they find the professor’s other daughter, bubbly beatnik Suzanne (Dani Lynn) partying it up in the cantina and hipping the natives to the latest slang (if only she came with subtitles). They get mixed up in shootings, frameups and espionage, discover the police chief (Nestor Paiva) and President (Pedro Regas) have eagerly awaited help from just such a hapless couple, and somehow manage to stop the establishment of a Fourth Reich.
Their key helper on Mandoras will look mighty familiar since it’s Carlos Rivas again, this time playing Camino, the moustache-less kin of the ill-fated tipster. As this revolutionary tells us in a painfully slow but gloriously avant garde flashback, “Mr. H” (that’s what he calls Hitler) spent his last days in the bunker surrounded by doubles and scientists, and there decided to have his head preserved and packed for easy transport and uninterrupted rule. I loved how Rivas was superimposed on scenes of invading armies and bombing as he shares this secret history, then stops in mid-sentence to take a really long drag on his cigarette (if only the background scenes paused and started up again when he continued).
Kathy’s talent is stating the obvious and the couple acts more like they’re at a gossipy Mad Men cocktail party than worried about loved ones and the fate of the world. Kathy thinks this is a fine time to buy a complete set of dinnerware and when it inevitably breaks, there’s a group wink-tsk-”that’s our Kathy” look (if only there was a laugh track). Regular L.A. neighbourhoods don’t convince as villages, Presidential palaces and airports, the interior sets are bland, and in poor excuses for “action scenes,” everyone just hurries from one room to another. So it’s a flop in all those ways, but I really got a kick out of the beautiful photography by Stanley Cortez, and the creepy little basement lair where Mr. H’s head lives.
The climactic car chase with H in his jar on the back seat straining to see what’s going on outside his range of vision is absurdly amusing–“macht schnell!”– and in the end we’re treated to a really long look at H’s head melting away much like the Nazi Toht’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with none of the reaction since zero effort was put into making this look better than just a wax sculpture staring into space (If only there was a Bruno Ganz “Hitler reacts to being melted” scene). Madmen of Mandoras is an extra-large hunk of cheese, a “so bad it’s good” classic, and an entertaining clash between idea and execution.
This movie was re-released in 1968 with additional scenes as They Saved Hitler’s Brain.
*great background on Bradley at Glenn Erickson’s review.