Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bette Davis as Madame Sin

A TV series centered around a Fu Manchu-like villainous played by the incomparable Bette Davis? That was the idea behind Madame Sin, a TV series pilot which aired in 1972 on the ABC Movie of the Weekend.

Executive producer Robert Wagner stars as Tony Lawrence, a disgruntled former intelligence agent kidnapped by Madame Sin's henchmen and transported to her fortress in the Scottish Highlands. Madame Sin tries to convince Tony to join her evil organization by showing him film footage of his girlfriend being tortured and killed as part of an American espionage plot. It works and pretty soon Tony is helping to abduct a submarine commander so his brain can be reprogrammed to steer his sub into Madame Sin's clutches.

Denholm Elliott.
Shot in England and Scotland, Madame Sin looks more expensive than most made-for-TV movies of the era. It also features a respectable cast, with the always reliable Denholm Elliott present as Madame Sin's right-hand man.

I suspect the producers wanted to recreate the tongue-in-cheek, gadget-laden approach of the Derek Flint films. But whereas those were sophisticated fare, Madame Sin veers closer to camp. Ms. Davis, decked out in layers of light-blue eye shadow and a large black wig, utters lines like: "You're a prisoner only if you think of yourself as one." Later, when Tony finally realizes he's been duped, he yells: "You're not a woman. You're a disease!" (I thought: "No, Tony, she is a woman and a whole lot smarter than you.")

Wagner as Tony Lawrence.
Madam Sin was released theatrically overseas, but stateside its television ratings weren't strong enough for it to become a regular series. Personally, given the ending (and no spoilers here!), I can't help but wonder what the producers were thinking. I cannot fathom an American television network in the early 1970s being bold enough to build a weekly series around a villain. I suppose one could argue that Dallas became just that in 1978, but even J.R. Ewing had more redeeming qualities than Madame Sin.

Before a decision has been made on the Madame Sin TV series, Bette Davis starred in another made-for-TV movies that also served as a pilot. The Judge and Jake Wyler boasted a more conventional premise with Bette playing a retired judge who becomes a private investigator. Her titular partner is an ex-con serving probation (Doug McClure). It wasn't picked up as a regular series either.

Ironically, Robert Wagner later played another character who would work for an evil villain bent on world domination. Yes, he starred as Dr. Evil's right-hand man, No. 2, in three of the Austin Powers movies.


  1. Bette Davis in layers of blue eye shadow?! Sign me up!

  2. This movie is not one to take seriously in anyway, and that ending is fantastic. I only watched it for seeing Scotland. Found it hard to categorise when I reviewed it...

  3. Madam Sin is so over-the-top camp that it fails totally to have any dramatic impact. One suspects that Bette Davis who was always desperate for work - any work - and always knew that the movie was complete rubbish and so she overacted to an appalling degree and, no doubt, had a simply wonderful time.