Imagine, if you will, that you are a Hollywood producer in the year 1969. ABC TV has recently launched its venture into producing theatrical motion pictures and you have a doozy of a concept. It centers on a spoof of Charlie Chan movies with the distinction that you have enlisted some very eager partners in Japan, thus the main character will have to be Japanese. You are sitting around a long table in a studio conference room with executives deciding how to move forward. The promising venture will be filmed on location in Japan and. thus, will offer the promise of some exotic locations at your disposal. Since the project is very much inspired by the Pink Panther movies, you've scored a bullseye by enlisting screenwriter William Peter Blatty to author the script. Blatty knew a thing or two about the Pink Panther franchise, having co-authored the screenplay for "A Shot in the Dark". Yes, it's all coming together very nicely. Now comes the fun part: who to cast as the Japanese incarnation of Inspector Clouseau, a bumbling detective named Hoku Ichihara. Names are bandied about and you smile in a patronizing manner because you already know who the most logical actor is to cast: Zero Mostel!!!! A collective gasp from those around the table ensues, along with plenty of backslapping on your stroke of genius. Yes, when it comes to playing a bumbling Japanese detective, who could possibly think of someone more suited for the assignment than the rotund Jewish actor from Brooklyn?
One doesn't know if this is how the film "Mastermind" came into existence but its safe to assume at some point a room full of executives had to green light the casting of Zero Mostel in the lead role in what must surely be one of the most ill-advised films of the era. The concept seems even more egregious in these more enlightened times once you get your first view of Mostel decked out in his makeup, which includes slanted eyes and a droopy mustache that makes him look like a cross between Max Bialystock and Fu Manchu, though to be fair, for decades other unsuitably cast Caucasian actors portrayed Asian detectives, Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov among them. The film is a jumbled mess that opens with the theft of a prototype of an amazing new human-like robot that has a comprehensive understanding of virtually every command. Some shady characters have also kidnapped the scientist who invented the robot, which is named Schatzi and is played by actor Felix Silas. The bad guys intend to appropriate the design plans for nefarious purposes. If anyone gets in their way, they utilize as hi-tech weapon that puts people in a permanent state of suspended animation. The gimmick is played out ad nauseam and reminds us of why it's generally a mistake to have live actors playing statues or inanimate beings (just look at "The Man with the Golden Gun" for further proof.) Inspector Ichihara is called in to solve the case along with his British sidekick Nigel Crouchback (Gwan Grainger) and immediately makes a muddle of things, a la Clouseau.
Anyone can make a bad movie but it's a true rarity to make a movie that is so bad it falls into that prized category of being a guilty pleasure; a film that you may want to revisit for all the wrong reasons. "Mastermind" meets that criteria. How had is the film? It's "Which Way to the Front?" kind of bad. The director, Alex March, had recently saw the release of two major studio films, "Paper Lion" and "The Big Bounce". He gamely plows through some juvenile sight gags and even speeds up film frames to emulate the old Keystone Cops films, a concept that already had moss on it by 1969. It must be said that March does a credible job of capitalizing on the Japanese locations and manages some impressive set pieces among the teeming city crowds, most notably a well-staged car/motorcycle chase. Beyond that, however, there is little to recommend. Zero Mostel gamely goes through the humiliations of playing out every cringe-inducing stereotype that had been assigned to Japanese characters in movies of the era. Most notable are the scenes in which his character fantasizes about being a great samurai warrior, which gives you the heart-stopping vision of what it might have looked like if Kurosawa had cast him in the leading role of "Seven Samurai". Mostel is not alone in having made a Faustian deal in return for a free trip to Japan, as Bradford Dillman is also in the cast.