In 1964, Austrian actress Maria Rohm (née Helga Maria Grohmann) met British producer and sometime screenwriter Harry Alan Towers (aka Peter Welbeck), whom she wed in 1982, and their personal and professional lives were inextricably intertwined until Harry died at the age of 88 in 2009. A frequent friend of this site, Maria Towers had begun acting at the age of four with ten years at the Vienna Burgtheatre, and later spent more than a decade in front of the camera—primarily in Towers productions—before moving behind it to be his producing partner. Harry’s half-century in the cinema, or even just the joint filmography of the two Towerses, is beyond the scope of this post, but I did want to pay tribute to him on what would have been his 90th birthday.
I know little of Harry’s early success in radio in the 1940s and in television in the ’50s, which is why I was delighted to learn from Maria that he completed a forthcoming autobiography, which I anticipate with pleasure. “Harry, an RAF Flying Officer, was extremely prolific in those early days, writing and producing many programs,” she recalls. “Among them was Much Binding in the Marsh, which Queen Elizabeth II favorably mentioned to Harry when they met on his 74th birthday in St. Petersburg, Russia during the filming of Bullet to Beijing .
“Harry was also instrumental with Lew Grade in starting commercial TV in England,” Maria added. He worked in radio with John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and Orson Welles, who later played Long John Silver in Harry’s Treasure Island (1972) and lent his voice to Ten Little Indians (1974). The prolific and oft-pseudonymous Spanish exploitation filmmaker Jesús (aka Jess) Franco was the second unit director on Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965), and directed nine films for Towers between 1968 and 1970, most of them starring Maria.
The fact that Maria was a gorgeous woman who enjoyed “bringing eroticism and sexuality out into the mainstream” undoubtedly endeared her to audiences and Franco, who is notorious for his sensational subject matter. I’ve often cited as a high-water mark of this trait the scene from The Bloody Judge (1970) in which Maria’s character is compelled to lick blood from a naked female corpse. Over the years I have been admittedly critical of several Towers productions, especially Franco’s, for their high sleaze quotients and inversely proportional budgets, yet Harry’s career has long fascinated me for its international flavor, the high caliber of many of his collaborators (most notably and consistently actor Christopher Lee), and his reliance on famous literary works.
Harry’s cinematic oeuvre comprised about 100 films in countries from Austria to Zimbabwe, and I believe he pioneered the polyglot international co-productions whose credits often looked like the result of some demented Euro-Mix Master. Among the best known are eight inspired by the work of Sax Rohmer, including five with Lee as arch-villain Fu Manchu, the first of which, Don Sharp’s The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), is among Harry’s finest, with Nigel Green letter-perfect as Fu’s nemesis, Nayland Smith. But the Green-free sequels—Sharp’s The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Jeremy Summers’s The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), and Sr. Franco’s The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)—sadly and steadily declined in quality.
Another of Harry’s most durable properties was the Agatha Christie whodunit Ten Little Indians, which he filmed three times over as many decades, starting in 1965 with Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton, Fabian (!), Leo Genn, Stanley Holloway, Wilfred Hyde-White, Daliah Lavi, and Dennis Price. The 1974 rendition, a BOF childhood fave, deployed an equally enviable cast, including Oliver Reed, Elke Sommer, Herbert Lom, Richard Attenborough, and Charles Aznavour as well as Maria. It also boasted two former Bond villains, Gert (Goldfinger) Fröbe and Adolfo (Largo) Celi, and a standout score by Ennio Morricone protégé Bruno Nicolai, but the 1989 version had considerably less star power, highlighted only by Lom (in a different role) and Donald Pleasence.
Ironically, the producer of Franco’s Eugenie…the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1970) also specialized in family fare such as Black Beauty (1971) and The Call of the Wild (1972), the latter directed by the late Ken Annakin and starring Charlton Heston. Maria told me that while filming Anna Sewell’s equine classic, she broke six ribs when training to ride side-saddle, and was—to say the very least—uncomfortable when she had to get back on the horse a week later. Like Eugenie, the Franco-Towers-Rohm Justine (1969) was based on the writing of the infamous Marquis de Sade; the trio also joined forces for Venus in Furs (1969), adapted from the novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, thus neatly encompassing the eponyms of sadism and masochism.
I have written repeatedly of my qualified admiration for the best of the few Franco films I have seen, Count Dracula (1970), which along with Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is probably the most faithful version, pace a certain Mr. Matheson. The film’s threadbare production values are an undeniable debit, but Lee was afforded more screen time and a greater fidelity to Stoker’s character than in most of his Hammer entries as the Count, backed by Lom’s Van Helsing, Klaus Kinski’s Renfield, and another fine Nicolai score. On the distaff side, Mina and Lucy (for whom we named our two adopted shelter cats) were respectively played by Maria and Franco’s tragic first muse, Soledad Miranda, who died at 27 in an auto crash that same year.
Within the horror/SF genre, Harry adapted such notable authors as Verne (Rocket to the Moon, 1967), Wilde (Dorian Gray, 1970), Wells (The Shape of Things to Come, 1979), Poe (The House of Usher, 1989; Masque of the Red Death, 1991), Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera, 1989), Conan Doyle (The Lost World, 1992), King (The Mangler, 1995), and Haggard (She, 2001). Outside it, he had a go at Alistair MacLean (River of Death, 1989) and revived Len Deighton’s “Harry Palmer” in Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg (1996). The Towerses also returned to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson (Black Arrow, 1985) and Jack London (The Sea Wolf, 2001), as well as tackling newer versions of Dorian (2001) and Rohmer’s Sumuru (2003).
“I remember Harry deeply regretting that some of the films hadn’t turned out better. Raising enough money was usually the problem, also he tended to rush from project to project which did not always help the quality of the films. Harry never stopped coming up with new ideas and trying to finance them until the very end. That’s who he was, for better or for worse. Often this caused him great disappointment, because at the beginning he was always filled with a vision which had to be changed, bit by bit lost its luster because of insufficient finance. This led to the need for co-producing partners in other, non-English-speaking countries, which in turn brought with it concessions in casting,” Maria recalled in an e-mail that I quote with her kind permission.
“Having said that, Harry and I would not have met had he not been looking for a German actress in Vienna for City of Fear , where Constantin were the co-producers. We used to search for better solutions during countless hours of tossing ideas back and forth, mostly in the middle of the night. It’s not a simple life for an independent producer. Still, Harry was not a company man, couldn’t have worked for a major studio.” Maria has provided him with a fitting epitaph indeed, affectionate yet clear-eyed about the unavoidable shortcomings of his large and diverse body of work. So let us remember Harry Alan Towers as a unique, industrious, path-breaking, colorful figure who made my favorite cinematic era, the 1960s and ’70s, far more interesting.