As the 70’s began to draw to a close, so did filmmaker Bob Chinn’s relationship with Armand Atamian’s Freeway Films. Flush with projects from other companies (most notably, Jerry Mahoney and Gail Palmer’s Caribbean Films) Chinn had mostly been soldiering on with Freeway as a token of gratitude toward Atamian and also because of Chinn’s friendship with producer Dick Aldrich. But once Aldrich left Freeway, a good portion of Chinn’s excuse to hang around went with him; so Blonde Fire, the one and only Freeway/Wadd film to not include Aldrich as a producer, was to be Bob Chinn’s last film for the company and, coincidentally, the last time he would ever utilize the Johnny Wadd character until he would find a new life in its spirit when he would revive it in print and on screen in the third act of his own career.
In Blonde Fire, Johnny Wadd (John Holmes) travels to Capetown, South Africa, to take possession of the titular artifact, a rare diamond worth a cool $4 million. Currently in the hands of smooth, sharp-dressed executive Mr. Simon (Jon Martin) and Vickey Carothers (Jesie St. James), his acrid, all-business chief of security, the diamond exchange with Wadd is delayed overnight when terrorist activities cause the airport to be unsafe. During this period, Wadd has to cool his jets while being thwarted at every turn by nefarious characters such as the suave and mysterious Malcolm Blackmore (James Price) who works out of the Hanjuri Club with his gaggle of slippery female assistants (which includes Phaery Burd and Dorothy LeMay).
Much more fashioned like a James Bond adventure than a private eye flick, Blonde Fire flaunts the opulence of its location (though completely constructed on sets in a warehouse in Oakland) and contains its own debonair supervillain in the guise of Malcolm Blackmore. But it’s unclear why Johnny Wadd is middle-manning a diamond exchange and for whom. And even if the numerous double and triple crosses and twists that fall into place in the final moments of the movie try their best to provide explanations as to why everyone has done what’s been done, I have a sneaking sensation that Wadd didn’t even need to be in the middle of this caper. As scripted by Jeffery Fairbanks (credited as Jeffery Neal), the story seems to boil down to a protagonist, an antagonist, and an object that everyone wants. Fair enough. But it charges ahead without fully fleshing out any of the whosits and whatsits. Additionally, just from a narrative point of view, the Martin/St. James double-cross on Wadd in the third act is pretty thin given that it’s predicated on the idea that Johnny Wadd is going to leave a bucket of cash with two strangers and then take a 10,000 mile, transatlantic flight without first ensuring what he’s taking back is really what he’s supposed to take back. And, not to be a stickler, but in terms of finding a hiding place for the diamond where Johnny Wadd “will never find it,” perhaps Vickey and Lana (Kitty Shayne) could have puzzled out a better place than Lana’s vagina given the ease with which Wadd was able to inspect the area earlier in the film. Regardless of the plausibility of that detail, “Now wipe it off and give it to me” is an undoubtedly great line that more than justifies its inclusion.
I guess it’s not that I object to watching John Holmes have sex with a bevy of gorgeous women, it’s just that Blonde Fire seems to really underestimate its audience. Maybe it’s risible to complain about things such as character and story development in an adult film, but part of the greatness of Bob Chinn’s work is to see how he uses the conventions of porn to make unconventional genre films. Had The China Cat still been trafficking in the same kind of silly nonsense Wadd got himself into with the Jeannie Hamilton caper back in 1971, it would be hard to ask much of Blonde Fire. But since back-envelope plot sketches were for loop carriers and primitive one-day wonders and were pretty much a thing of the long past and the Johnny Wadd series seemed to build on previous strengths, Blonde Fire emerges with the opposite problem of Liquid Lips; a little too much icing on not enough cake, proving that there is such a thing as too much fun.
John Holmes is back and sporting a straw hat which not only makes sense in a place like South Africa, but it also neatly references his wardrobe from the earliest films in the series, but gone is the loosey goosey Johnny Wadd from The Jade Pussycat or The China Cat. In Blonde Fire, he seems both agitated and taciturn and the character’s paranoia feels all too real and pretty uncomfortable, but it actually works for the film. Holmes’s edginess sometimes makes Johnny Wadd come off as if he were just a little more than put out that he got the entire previous movie stolen from him by a group of female detectives. But despite Wadd’s demeanor, Holmes is in much better condition than how the stateside shoot of Chinn’s Prisoner of Paradise would find him a few months later. He functions properly throughout all of his sex scenes and he manages to still be amiable in moments.
All of the sex scenes in Blonde Fire are pretty great in and are what help make the sum of the parts a bit greater than the whole. Kitty Shayne’s shower scene with Holmes is plenty nice as is Holmes’s bit with St. James, the one in the cast using Blonde Fire as an exemplary vehicle for both their legitimate acting ability and as a tremendous sex performer. While it’s transparently tacked-on and superfluous, it’s hard to level any major complaints about the inclusion of Seka, making her debut as “a hot little blonde in San Francisco” who bookends the films. It’s another example of a gorgeously lit and beautifully shot sex scene that, even if it doesn’t do anything at all for the story, looks great on its own and shows Chinn’s skill at delivering impeccably crafted erotic material.
But there really isn’t any way to talk about Blonde Fire today without talking about one of its biggest issues which has absolutely nothing to do with the film’s production but everything to do with its utter maltreatment on home video. As shot by exploitation pro Lee Utterback, Blonde Fire is a dark film that makes or breaks on the very careful lighting by Ted Allen and the elaborate and opulent production design by Bill Wolf. Each piece blends together to convey an unforgivingly sinister but richly colorful atmosphere where Wadd’s overnight stay in Africa is marked by the various background lighting schemes that resemble the passage of time in Hitchcock’s Rope. Most all of this gets completely flushed down the commode due to some of the most piss-poor stewardship this side of a public domain title. While I’ll never not think Holmes’s diamond cluster ring isn’t the most ridiculous piece of male jewelry this side of something my no-taste grandfather would have worn, the way it sparkles in the sex scenes with St. James and Fatima Hamoud is impressive and further adds to the visual texture that is completely erased thanks to the slip-and-fall team pretending to be a good-faith caretaker of this film.
Further lost in the sex scene between Holmes and Hamoud, the best one in the film and likely one of the top five in the whole series, is the evocative and stunning lighting that drapes it. Indecipherable are the details in the back alley shots and the interior of the Hanjuri Club; disappeared into an ugly black hole are are the decorative touches in the respective offices of Blackmore and Simon; and obliterated are the purposefully rich colors in Wadd’s hotel and Vickey’s living room. Just as an example, it took me about four viewings before I even realized that, during their scene together early in the film, LeMay and Price are sitting in front of a giant replica of Ernie Barnes’s The Sugar Shack and given its presence during a dialogue scene, it wasn’t missed because LeMay and Price are doing anything to divert attention away from such a glaring piece of eye candy.
Perhaps the worst piece of evidence that displays a complete disregard for the film in its current transfer which, making things even worse, is sourced from an edited VHS master. Not only does it have has jarring jump cuts in the dialogue scene between Holmes and Burd, it is almost mortally wounded by deep cuts during the encounter between Burd and LeMay. And close inspection reveals that Shayne and Holmes’s scene isn’t entirely intact and I suspect there are a few seconds of dialogue between Martin and St. James in their final moment together that are likewise excised. In fact, so compromised is the presentation that it’s impossible to confirm the appearance of a credited John Seeman, who, at least in this transfer, never does materialize. I hope to Christ that Bob Chinn never sees this crime scene lest he look over it and weep while muttering “Look how they massacred my boy.”
Blonde Fire has the kind of visual opulence that can really carry an adult film which might be a bit thin on the story side and it’s a genuine shame that the film’s greatest pleasures simply cannot be fully appreciated today. If someone were to announce a new release that included a 4K scan of the camera negative, it would definitely be a day for calendar-clearing celebration. But even if time proves that the materials for the film are gone with the wind and this is the only version I’ll ever see, if I’m given the choice between a ticket to Blonde Fire or Patti Rhodes’s absolutely ghoulish, The Return of Johnny Wadd, Holmes’s 1986 effort to squeeze some dollars out of the character which was made while he was visibly unwell, I’m taking the trip to Capetown ten out of ten times and with a smile on my face while doing so.
For even if Blonde Fire lands in a way that’s a little anticlimactic and not quite on the same upward trajectory of the previous four Wadd titles, it remains a fine piece of entertainment and does better work with its budget than, say, Moonraker did the same year (though I’ll fully admit that I’d be the first in line to buy a ticket to a “Johnny Wadd in Space!” movie). It’s a shame that Waikiki Wadd, another Hawaiian adventure some of which was actually shot during the Hawaiian portion of the Prisoner of Paradise production, never got off the ground, but there is absolutely nothing to mourn when taking a long view of Bob Chinn’s Johnny Wadd cycle. For within a single decade, the filmmaker went from shooting an entire feature in one day’s time with a crew of three or four in a single location for $750 all the way to creating imaginative adventures that found themselves in exciting, often-authentic locations and layered with a clever application of cinematic and pop-culture literacy. In terms of production quality and scope, seeing the difference between Johnny Wadd and Blonde Fire is like watching the difference between John Ford’s Shooting Straight and The Searchers but with the technical and narrative gains achieved in a span of only eight years instead of thirty-nine.
Not bad, sez me.
(C) Copyright 2023, Patrick Crain