In this 1962 “adaptation” of Thomas De Quincey’s memoirs centered on his addiction to opium, Vincent Price stars as Gilbert De Quincey, a mercenary who arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown on the eve of a tong war. There he seeks to liberate Chinatown’s sizable population of disenfranchised women being sold for opium as sex slaves by the evil Ling Tang. As you may have surmised from the conflicting descriptions above, Confessions of an Opium Eater, which is now available from Warner Archive I should add, is hardly an adaptation of De Quincey’s work at all. Apart from the loosely-appropriated title, character name, and references to opium, Confessions plays out as more of an exploitative pulp detective story than a reflection on the nature of drug abuse. As such, the film may fail miserably as an adaptation, but it succeeds admirably as a rough-and-tumble, atmospheric B-picture.
Throughout the picture we learn much about Ling Tang, his organization’s opium and slave trades, as well as his rivals’ motivations, but we ultimately learn very little about the fictional De Quincey apart from the fact that he wears chain mail under his all-black attire and scales buildings like a ninja. Despite serving as the film’s narrator, De Quincey remains something of a mystery to us through to the very end of the film. In this, his role in the picture mirrors that of so many other pulp heroes in other pulp fictions before it, who have less invested in the mysteries laid out before them than the rest of the characters in the narrative do.
Director Albert Zugsmith (more famous for his role as producer of such films as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil or The Incredible Shrinking Man) delivers some truly masterful sequences here, including a silent, slow motion, chase in which Price, high on opium, flees Ling Tang’s men across Chinatown’s rooftops. Another thrilling scene finds Price battling hatchet-wielding thugs over the raging waters of the San Francisco sewer system. And although the sewer set appears to have been constructed on the cheap, which it no doubt was, the obviousness of it only adds to the B-charm of the picture. Confessions also boasts some wonderfully bleak and moody dialogue throughout, particularly that given to Price. However, the broken speech patterns of the Chinese characters is overtly stereotypical, even if it’s sort of perfectly suited to the overall exploitative tone of the piece.
For all its faults and obvious lack of financial backing, Confessions of an Opium Eater is indeed a solid B-picture through and through. Were it to have stuck to its strengths more fervently (i.e. moody dialogue and dynamic, high contrast lighting setups), it very well could have earned itself classic status. And yet, its real charm can be found not in its most successful elements, but in its rough edges. After all, very few filmmakers bring the climax of their films to a screeching halt to allow for three consecutive dance numbers as Zugsmith does here, and that at least makes Confessions of an Opium Eater special.