Saturday, 27 September 2008

Un Uomo dalla pelle dura / The Boxer / Counter Punch / Murder in the Ring / Ripped Off / Tough Guy

Un Uomo dalle pelle dura / The Boxer is a film that cannot but play differently in hindsight through the casting of the notoriously troubled Robert Blake in the titular role of the tough-skinned pugilist. For Teddy 'Cherokee' Wilcox is a man with some severe anger management issues, seemingly tailor-made for the perfectionistic, method-to-madness actor.

Within two minutes Teddy has walked out on his manager after discovering, in time honoured fashion, that boxing is a dirty game where his chances of a shot at the big time are not as much in his own hands as he would like.

Hitting the road Teddy meets a hippy stranger who asks him for a lift; that he's played by Tomas Milian suggests less a casual encounter than one which will prove important. Teddy declines, less because he fears the stranger is a Manson type – remembering the counter-counter cultural reaction against the hippy around the time of the film's release – as that he's not one to help his fellow man out: “I got my own troubles pal,” as he explains.

Arriving at a diner, Teddy then shows how much of a jerk he can be when, given admittedly slow service, he makes a mess of the counter and almost punches out the guy behind him before realising he is in fact an old friend, Mike.

As the two catch up on each other's lives we learn that Teddy is a college graduate, a decorated Vietnam veteran – he caught a bullet in the leg four months into his tour of duty and was invalided out, but killed 13 Vietcong on one occasion before this – and an ex-con; if an odd combination, it's one that is telling in terms of his personality.

As it so happens Mike also knows an old-time trainer, Nick, who worked with some of the greats, lives nearby and is always looking for young prospects. Under Nick's tutelage Teddy soon back in the ring and climbing the ranks. “We'll make boxing what it used to, what today's kids don't know.”

At this point Nick is approached by the syndicate who make threats on his life – we might wonder why they don't threaten his daughter were it not that she is the obvious love interest figure in the otherwise male-dominated tale – and tell him that Teddy must lose his next fight.

With Teddy not one to take dive, the trainer impairs his vision part of the way through the fight but the boxer somehow manages to prevail.

Realising that he has been betrayed by Nick, Teddy goes to sort things out. Arriving, he is is taken by surprise and knocked unconscious. He comes to to find Nick dead, beaten to death. in what Captain Perkins, assigned to investigate the case, surmises to be the manner of a professional...

If The Boxer unfolds like a piece of cheap pulp fiction that plays every cliché of the boxing / crime film it at least acknowledges this fact, as when Perkins proclaiming that Teddy's file “reads like a cheap novel”.

Indeed, given that Tarantino referenced Blake's TV character Baretta in Reservoir Dogs and has a long-standing interest in Italian trash cinema, one wonders if the film had in some way influenced Pulp Fiction's boxer story alongside the more obvious likes of The Set Up.

Where The Boxer departs from Hollywood formula is in the inclusion of a certain giallo touches, including fetishistic close-ups of the real killer donning black gloves before he goes to work, along with the wider investigative scenario that develops as Teddy tries to prove his innocence to the sceptical Perkins.

This in turn leads to a number of scenes of the investigators scrutinising still photographs, tapes and film clips for that vital clue, including a a neat variation on the classic giallo “testimone oculare” formulation as a lip-reader makes out some enigmatic remarks – “There may be some broken gears in the cash register. The firm sent me to fix the machinery.” – in a cinesthetic modulation from the aural to the visual back to the aural.

More generally the film benefits from mondo specialist Franco Prosperi's distinct ability to modulate between documentary and fiction styles, that knack for making his documentary material more visually exciting through more obvious interventions and the fiction material more realistic through use of documentary-style techniques.

Thought some moments like an apparent breach of the 180 degree rule don't quite come off, the montages depicting Teddy's ascendancy in the ring, accompanied by Carlos Pes's signature theme, are effective. The frequency of awkward pans in the panned and scanned version under review also suggests an effective use of the widescreen space.

Though all the cast, which also includes Ernest Borgnine as Perkins and Gabriele Ferzetti as Nick, are good the other stand-out beside Blake is Catherine Spaak as Nick's daughter. Whilst obviously there as eye-candy roles, that she otherwise portrays a character whose appearance, personality and mannerisms are very different from her role in Cat o' Nine Tails – indeed, the viewer who has seen both films may need a double take – serves to indicate her underrated abilities as an actress and that casting for one set of considerations need not preclude another.

[The film is available for download from Cinemageddon]

Friday, 26 September 2008

Affare Concorde / The Concorde Affair / S.O.S. Concorde

Disaster movies and the Airport series were two staples of 1970s cinema. 1979 brought them together with Concorde: Airport 79 and, predictably enough, spawned this Italian imitation / cash in, directed by the ever-reliable Ruggero Deodato.

Like its models Concorde Affair features something approximating an all-star cast, with Joseph Cotten, Edmund Purdom, Mimsy Farmer and James Franciscus in the name roles and such familiar Italian cinema faces as Dakar, Venatino Venantini and Meg Fleming amongst the supporting players.

Cotten and Purdom play the villains. With their airline threatened by Concorde's success, they've decided that a campaign of sabotage is called for, leading to a nice symbolic cut from the launching of Cotten's clay pigeon target to the doomed Concorde taking off.

The plane duly goes down over the ocean, near to one of the Antilles. All on board are killed, with the exception of Farmer's stewardess, Jean Beneyton, who is rescued from the water by two fishermen, one of them played by Dakar.

Fleming's character, Nicole Brody, notices Jean and informs her ex-husband, Franciscus's down-on-his-luck investigative reporter Moses Brody, who duly flies out from New York. Unfortunately by the time he arrives Venantini and his gang have already recaptured Jean and disposed of Fleming and Dakar. Worse, with the downing of one Concorde apparently not having the desired effects, his paymasters are planning a second disaster...

While there is nothing unusual in Concorde Affair's depiction of evil businessmen willing to kill a few hundred innocent people for the sake of profit – and here remembering the Ford Pinto saga during the 1970s – what makes it more interesting is the way in which Cotten emphasises that the multinational corporation is like a state:

“Since time immemorial nations have been sacrificing hundreds of millions of lives to protect their interests. Well, we too are a nation. A multi-national state. Our citizens are workers, employees, technicians – and shareholders. The shareholders, gentlemen! And it is our responsibility to protect their interests, which at the moment are being threatened by the Concorde.”

There's an inherent believability gap in the story that it's hard to accept that the Concorde with its limited passenger and cargo capacity and noise could have ever offered a real threat to conventional jumbo jet based air-travel. The idea of a South American airline commissioning 12 new Concordes also seems highly dubious considering that only 20 models were ever built and operated by the UK and France, only 14 of these seeing operational use.

Given environmental concerns, a more plausible Concorde '79 story would perhaps have been one of Cotten, Purdom and company bribing politicians and encouraging astroturfing (i.e. fake grassroots) campaigns rather than corporate murder. This, of course, would doubtless have been a scenario that wouldn't have offered the same dramatic potential.

Reading the interview with Mimsy Farmer in Spaghetti Nightmares, where her commitment to Marxist politics helps indicate just why she found Europe a more congenial environment than the USA, one wonders if this anti-corporate aspect was part of the reason underlying her involvement in the project. If not, its anti-bourgeois tone is certainly in accord with House on the Edge of the Park and Waves of Lust in relation to Deodato's oeuvre.

Another problem in terms of plausibility is that there is no sense of any official investigation within the film, with nobody from the aviation authorities present in the Antilles searching for the Concorde or its black box, nor any other reporters converging on the islands.

Indeed, the whole scenario seems to operate in a curious vaccuum. We get little sense of Cotten and company having seen to it that rumours about the Concorde are already in circulation – especially given that waging the propaganda war is surely an important prelude to waging a real war; that they likely wouldn't escalate the conflict to blowing up planes without exhausting other methods first. The question of exactly how you go about moving a 200-foot long, 78,700kg plane off on the seabed and hiding it without anyone noticing or wondering what you're up to also goes unanswered.

In this regard the film, with its extensive waterworks, is also touch reminiscent of an inverse Jaws or The Last Shark in that the bad guys should be trying to publicise the danger as much as possible rather than downplaying it; note here also that the surname of Franciscus's character is the same as that of Roy Scheider's in Spielberg's film.

If the individual investigative journalist also shows up in the like of Fulci's Zombie and City of the Living Dead around the same time – not to mention his more specialised anthropologist variant in Deodato's own Cannibal Holocaust – the scenarios in which these characters are placed are that bit lower-key: the killing of a cop or the death of a reputed medium in unusual circumstances are worth a newshound's nosing around a bit, but of a different order to an iconic aircraft going down with the loss of 100-plus lives.

Gaunt and Bolla

Another reason for mentioning Cannibal Holocaust is, of course, the casting of that film's Robert Bolla as the one of the ground control team at London the airport as the film builds to its race against time climax.

What's less frequently been remarked upon, however, is the presence of another 70s woodsman amongst the team, namely Michael Gaunt who, in one of our six degrees of separation filone style, also appears in City of the Living Dead as one of the gravediggers opposite another Cannibal Holocaust alumnus, Perry Pirkanen.

Reading Gaunt's credits on the IMDB makes for some bizarre juxtapositions, ranging from long running British children's TV programme Jackanory to Radley Metzger's The Opening of Misty Beethoven to Doris Wishman's Let Me Die a Woman; I can't say I remembered Gaunt in either of these films but will definitely be keeping an eye out when I revisit them.

Returning to the inherent plausibility issues with the film, the point that needs to be made in closing is that, having outlined what I think are the problems with the film, they ironically really matter except to the critic commenting on the film in retrospect: Deodato knows that as long as he keeps things moving at a fair pace and throws in moments of spectacle like the killing of the fishermen; an extended scuba diving sequence; and the preparation, planting and triggering of the devices intended to down the second plane etc. – at regular intervals, his target audience aren't going to care too much.

What most impresses about his direction is again his versatility and professionalism, especially when we remember that he made the very different Concorde Affair and Cannibal Holocaust in the same year.

Stelvio Cipriani provides a workmanlike score, well suited to the action but not particularly memorable.

[An English-dubbed, Greek subtitled video rip is available for download from Cinemageddon]

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Sbirro, la tua legge è lenta... la mia... no! / Hunted City

Merli, Merola and Massi

How can you go wrong?

You can't, though it's true that the way in which Merli and Merola's characters operate is perhaps not quite as fans would expect at times, whilst Massi's direction might also come across as somewhat lazy in its frequent reliance upon the zoom.

The truth, I would argue, is that Hunted City has a different approach to the poliziotto that, when considered in wider relation to the films of Umberto Lenzi and Massi's earlier filone entries such as the Marc the Narc series gives a tentative sense of an emergent auteur at work.

Massi's films are more complex in their characterisation, narrative and politics whilst Lenzi's tend to have the superior set-pieces. This is not, however, to diminish the action sequences here or elsewhere in Massi's oeuvre. They're perfectly satisfactory but just don't have the same jaw-dropping intensity as those of Lenzi at his best.

Hunted City begins in classic fashion with the gunning down of a mafia-connected financier, Mr Guidi, followed by the arrival of Merli's cop, Commissioner Paolo Ferro – a name suggestive of his iron nature and also recalling a previous Massi / Merli collaboration, Il Comissario di Ferro – in Milan, where he is met by sidekick Arrigo, on hand to provide comic relief and a sense of contrast with Merli's ubercop.

The first deviation from formula comes when we are introduced to Merola's restauranteur Raffaele Acampora, an ex-mafioso – or at least member of the Camorra; as with most subtitled Italian crime films the distinctions aren't always made clear – telling and showing some punks who try to shake him down for protection exactly where they can go.

He's the sort of character you wouldn't get in a Lenzi film where things tend to be that much more obvious. At this point in the Lenzi version, we'd no doubt have a scene in which we were told that Merola was only using his restaurants as a legitimate front to conceal his illegal activities; a scene which would also likely preclude the preceding shakedown attempt unless it has been staged for the benefit of Merli.

But here, in Massi's vision and version of Violent Milan, we go straight the arrival of Merli's cop as the men are ejecte, being comparatively warmly received by Merola and given the information he's after. It's not so much that Acompara has an alibi, which is as would be expected, as that he had already satisfactorily completed his business dealings with Guidi and, in any case, appears to be doing far better as a legitimate businessman than an illegitimate one. This said, as the film progresses another aspect of Massi's shades of grey approach that emerges is to repeatedly blur the boundaries around respectability and legitimacy anyway; while Lenzi's films also blur the boundaries as a means of criticising the society of the times his protagonists tended to stand apart and above such compromises.

Next, Ferro visits his sister and her family. It's here that one of the film's dramatic contrivances emerges as we recognise her son Stefano's friend as the hitman who killed Guidi. An improbable coincidence perhaps, but one that is excusable and explicable in relation to genre formula whilst also providing for much needed suspense and drama given the anti-climatic nature of the preceding sequence: is Stefano also mixed up in the syndicate? If so will Ferro realise in time and how will he react?

As the assassinations continue, the next victim being a lawyer who is gunned down by some masked, tennis-bag carrying hitmen, another party becomes involved in the form of Don Alfonso, played by Francisco Rabal – albeit almost unrecognisable with / without (not being certain of which is the case) his hairpiece.

Though Alfonso and Ferro have a shared past, the way this works again proves distinctive. Regarding one another as honourable and worthy opponents, a rare commodity in the film's milieux and arguably that of the wider society it represents, the two men agree to put past differences behind them in pursuit of their common enemies:

Ferro: “I once did you a favour”
Alfonso: “But that's how honoured family members speak”

Again, in our imagined Lenzi version of the film it's hard to see the lines being crossed in this way whilst even if they were there would surely be a double-cross from the mafioso sooner or later. Here, by contrast, Ferro is sufficiently trusting to eventually have the Don arrange a hit on him through his contacts – a desparate strategy that he hopes will bring the elusive murder syndicate into the open...

Returning to the subject of Massi's direction, I would argue that it encapsulates the kind of vernacular poetry discussed by Mikel Koven in his study of the giallo. Koven's ideas here are based on the theories of Pasolini, who argued for a distinction between a classical “cinema of prose,” which effaced the signs of its own construction, and a modernist “cinema of poetry,” which foregrounded them.

The key aspect of this theory in relation to Hunted City seems less the intersubjective nature of the poetic camera, as revealing the consciousness of the director behind his characters – although I suspect a case could be made for the use of the zooms in and out as conveying a sense of urgency and immediacy whereby no-one has much time to waste – as constantly making us aware of the camera's presence.

Essentially where the classical cinema would use cuts to break a scene up, going from the establishing shot to the medium shot or the close up and reframing whenever someone or something new enters into the set, Massi instead zooms in or out or, less frequently, racks focus instead, as when the camera picks out three gunmen who know one another from the tennis rackets they are carrying across a plaza.

The danger, of course, is that such an approach can easily be seen as lazy filmmaking, the kind of approach that was adopted by filone filmmakers for economic more than aesthetic reasons. Against this it can be noted that Massi also makes use of handheld; some comparatively elaborate mirror based set-ups; false POV shots from inside a vending machine, all in addition to finding some imaginative locations, most notably a church whose hall has been transformed into a firing range. (In this we also get a neat variant on the Dirty Harry “did he fire six bullets or only five” trope, as Ferro calmly blows away the bad guy who's holding a gun to Arrigo's head in the knowledge that the weapon, one of his, is empty.)

The performances are also pleasing, with Merli, Merola and Rabal each giving their characters greater depth than is often the case. Though they may still not be playing the full eight octaves range in a manner acceptable to art cinema snobs, they are considerably more than one note.

The way Massi handles Ferro's love interest is also noteworthy here. First, because he even gets one, as an apparent departure from single-minded duty. Second, because it gives Merli the opportunity to play – as distinct from be – vulnerable. Third, because the way the scenario ultimately plays out is in accord with the comparatively strong female characters present in some of his other films, most obviously the Baader-Meinhof gang styled terrorist played by Marcella Michelangeli in Mark Strikes Again.

Stelvio Cipriani delivers a solid score, with dynamic suspense and action cues incorporating slapped bass and wacka wacka guitar, further demonstrating his stylistic adaptability by substituting disco themes for the kind of organ-heavy shake cues that would have omnipresent earlier in the 70s in the film's obligatory nightclub scene.

[The film is available to download from Cinemageddon]

Saturday, 20 September 2008

The Giallo Database

Reviews of several gialli:

I Familiari delle vittime non saranno avvertiti / Crime Boss / New Mafia Boss

Directed by the underrated Alberto De Martino this is one of those Italian crime films that followed in the wake of The Godfather's international success, though its pace and dynamics are perhaps more reminiscent of classic Hollywood gangster films like Little Caesar, insofar as it deals with the ascendancy of a 'proletarian' gangster rather than with the power struggles of a well-established family in the crime aristocracy.

Unlike the 1930s films, however, there's no censorship or other requirement to present the protagonist's subsequently inevitable and thereby tragic fall. Instead, as with the Corleone family in The Godfather he can be better understood as succeeding by one set of criteria (business) and failing by another (personal).

We open with Antonio Mancuso (Anonio Sabato) getting permission from the local Don to leave Sicily for Milan, away from the possibilities that he sees as defining his future: starvation or being torn apart by lupara blasts.

The country mouse in the city?

On arrival in Milan, Antonio is given a high-profile job by Turi Petralia: the assassination of Loretto Abondano. It has a personal aspect as well, with Abondano being responsible for the murder of Antonio's father Vito many years ago. The situation is complicated by the fact that Vito was reputedly a traitor – a fact Turi had hoped to exploit by disposing of Antonio once the job is done.

The killer coming with a smile on his face

But Antonio is not the country bumpkin that he has appeared – “I know what you think Turi: I'm young, I've got no friends, I'm a country hick. Nevertheless, I'm no shit. I got the picture. I took some precautions and here I am” – and surprises Petralia.

The minions waiting in a spaghetti western configuration

Rather than killing Petralia, Antonio leaves him alive and indebted, declining a bundle of money in favour of his agreed-upon fee. It is all, as both men agree, strictly a matter of business.

Antonio next contacts his brother, Nicola, who has hitherto been a moderately successful pimp with “a stable of six or seven” in and hatches a plan: they secretly switch a consignment of narcotics from Godfather Don Vincenzo's men, let the replacement consignment be captured by the police and then offer to retrieve the original – i.e. the only one anyone else is aware of – in exchange for place in his family.

The daring plan succeeds – here we can forgive the skirting over the obvious plot holes as part and parcel of the 90 minute genre formula movie, especially since Vincenzo quickly surmises what has really happened – with the two men soon developing a close relationship, almost father-son like at times. (“You know something? I was like you when I was young” “I'd like to be like you. What do I have to do?”)

Unfortunately Vincenzo soon proves to not quite be the man he once was, showing signs of weakness and megalomania that can only re-ignite Antonio's ambition, especially when fuelled by the scheming of the ex-Don's daughter, Vincenzo's niece the beautiful Monica (Paola Tedesco).

Given the various locations within and outwith Italy – Palermo, Rome, Milan and Hamburg – and the presence of Savalas in the guest-star role, Mob Boss clearly had a reasonable budget.

Antonio Sabato again seems more comfortable playing a bad guy than a hero. If we perhaps engage with his character in more of a detached, observational manner we also prefer him to most of the other mafioso presented insofar as he at least has vestiges of a code of honour about him, being committed to his family's reputation and well-being and against the indiscriminate killing of civilians who have not chosen the gangster's life, as seen when one unfortunate is thrown out of a speeding car: “You shithead!” “Why? Are you afraid of killing?” “I only kill on commission or in self defence.”

The most significant scene in this regard is probably that of the family's reunion dinner where over complaints about Nicola's occupation – “a common pimp – I'd rather he was a killer or a thief. Even if he ended up in jail at least he'd have some self-respect,” remarks his wife – and a delightfully spaghetti eating montage, De Martino places a folk-sounding theme complete with ocarina: if ever you want an image of old southern / Sicilian attitudes and habits transcending time and place this would be a contender.

Domestic life

It's also a scene which perhaps indicates how the character of Antonio might have played to the intended vernacular audience, as someone more “like us” than the others presented and thus more of an identification figure, however ambiguous, than he appears to outsiders such as myself.

This in turn also impart an air of uncertainty over how to interpret some of the earlier lost in the city antics. Does he express bemusement at the automatic door of the airport because he doesn't know any better or because he knows that he's being appraised by Turi's men? Are 'we' laughing at him, with him, or being suckered just like his diegetic watchers, with their evalaution that “He's a real peasant [...] nothing but a punk kid, a cafone”?

Savalas doesn't doesn't completely convince as the Godfather figure, especially when he's the only American actor in the cast. His character also seems inconsistently written at times, though his forgetting the “only business” mantra when seeking to position himself above the rest of the family and referring to “cosa mia” could also be read as a sign that he is losing touch.

Paola Tedesco provides some compensation by virtue of doing more than just providing eye candy and love interest in pursuing her character's own enigmatic agenda.

De Martino's direction of the chases, shoot-outs and brawls is competent rather than inspired. Normally this would be a weakness though here it functions to film's overall benefit, giving it a more balanced feel than is often the case with filone cinema.

Indeed, the most memorable sequence is a montage dealing with the aftermath of mob rub out, in which one of the losers is processed into soap and then sent back to his bemused boss, who is clearly at something of a loss over what to do.

Turi gets punched in the face

Elsewhere we also get some nice single-shot set pieces and cuts, like Turi's opening the door to dramatically receive a punch in the face from Antonio's fist coming unexpectedly into the frame, ot one of those camera move transitions between inside and outside worlds through the window itself.

Francesco De Masi's crime jazz score is decent but nothing particularly outstanding or memorable, with most of the cues – the eating scene excepted – being rather generic and not always ideally suited to the on-screen action.

The dubbing of the film, in accented English, causes an element of confusion at times, with Sicilian rather than Italian terms being left untranslated and an English conversation at a bar in one of the German-set scenes being butted into by Antonio on grounds of 'unexpectedly' hearing his Italian mother tongue.

[The film is available for download from Cinemageddon]

Friday, 19 September 2008

Dog Tags

As a filone film from the director of the impressive giallo A White Veil for Mariale and slasher Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Romano Scavolini, it comes as little surprise when Dog Tags quickly demonstrates itself to have aspirations higher than the bulk of Italian war entries by dint of opening with a prologue and concluding with an epilogue re-iterating the factual basis of what we have just seen.

War is hell

While certainly still indulging in some action movie clichés, the result emerges as a worthy attempt by the self-proclaimed auteur to translate something of his own experiences of the Vietnam war as a photographer – a role translating in the film into a German freelance photographer in search of a scoop who bribed some soldiers to take him along – to the screen, with the tone more Platoon or Apocalypse Now than Rambo and the question thus less whether “we” get to win this time as who this “we” refers to in the first place.

The truth and nothing but?

In between the prologue and epilogue the action is divided up into acts, a somewhat artificial device that lessens the documentary angle but that otherwise presents one of Scavolini's concessions to entertainment, against the general backdrop of unpleasant characters and situations along with a callousness and cynicism unlikely to appeal to the more casual viewer looking for a fun way to spend 90 minutes.

We begin the story proper with the rescue of a number of American prisoners from Vietnamese tiger cages by a special forces type, Cecil. So far so conventional.

The rescuers and the rescued are then commanded by Captain Newport to retrieve some strongboxes of secret documents from a downed South Vietnamese helicopter, from where they will then be picked up by the re-scheduled helicopter.

The men accomplish this against heavy odds despite their generally poor physical condition and lack of equipment, but sustain some casualties in the process. Again, pretty conventional.

Then they discover the real contents of the strongboxes: looted gold. While this revelation in turn is perhaps somewhat predictable, as are the differences in opinion over what to do next, the result is anything but a harmless war-caper entry. Rather the men increasingly turn on one another for possession of the loot, as when some favour leaving a comrade with an infected leg behind and re-distributing his share, with rather fewer laughs and hi-jinks than a Kelly's Heroes or Inglorious Bastards.

The Satanik look

One of my other odd interests is the work of the late Italian designer Massimo Osti, who founded the clothing companies CP and Stone Island and conducted a lot of experiments with fabrics.

On Found_NYC, a site for these companies' enthusiasts and collectors there's a post-Osti collection for CP Company Donna which I could imagine Satanik or other 60s fumetti anti-heroine wearing:

A couple of new Italian film books

The description:

"The Time of the Crime" researches the relationship between time and vision as it emerges in five Italian films from the sixties and seventies: Antonioni's "Blow-Up" and "The Passenger", Bertolucci's "The Spider's Stratagem", Cavani's "The Night Porter", and Pasolini's "Oedipus Rex". By pushing the detective story to its extreme limits, these films articulate forms of time that defy any clear-cut distinction between past, present, and future - presenting an uncertain temporality that can be made visible but not calculated, and challenging notions of visual mastery and social control.

My initial thoughts:

Or, the respectable art-house face of the investigative / mystery film, but with some ideas that might be extended to some of the more aspirational and imaginative gialli?

The description:

"Comedy Italian Style" is an essential guide to the glorious works and filmmakers who make the world laugh with them. It is for all lovers of enduring, wry, over-the-top, side-splitting humor on film. "Comedy Italian Style" "officially" known as commedia all'italiana, served as a national cinematographic patrimony for some and a satirical outlook on the economic boom years for others. In truth, it functioned as the principal economic engine of the Italian-film industry.For in many ways, Italy and Italians, are best known through these works of biting humor and incredible grace. The landmark comedies are those of the 1960s and 1970s, when the political soil helped germinate a new society. But this radiant tradition is not contained within two decades; it started in the days before Neorealism and is continued well into the 21st century.Above all, now readily available on DVD and no longer the sole property of esoteric museum collections or art houses, these movies are terrific fun.Internationally acclaimed, from the work of Dino Risi ("The Monsters"), Mario Monicelli ("The Great War"), and Pietro Germi ("Divorce-Italian Style"), the high-water mark and high-wire act of commedia all'Italiana - its influence and tradition - are here explored through filmmakers as disparate as Federico Fellini ("8 1/2", "Amarcord"), Ettore Scola ("The Terrace"), Lina Wertmueller ("Swept Away"), Roberto Benigni ("Johnny Stecchino"), and many others.

My initial thoughts:

Or, let's not talk about the 70s Decamerotics and sex comedies, but at least we're engaging with popular / vernacular cinema a bit more than has been the case?

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Introducing krimi-nality

Announcing a new project / blog, dedicated to exploring the krimi film, 1959-1972

Another Polish poster

A suitably enigmatic poster for Le Orme / Footprints on the Moon

Das Verrätertor / Traitor's Gate

This 1964 krimi departs from the norm in two obvious ways. First, it's a West German / UK co-production, with Freddie Francis in the director's chair and Jimmy Sangster – concealed beneath his Henry Samson pseudonym – responsible for adapting the Edgar Wallace source novel. Second, it's got a different emphasis from usual, with no murder mystery component whatsoever. Instead it is more of a heist thriller in the tradition of Jules Dassin's Rififi, with a gang of jewel thieves hatching the audacious plan of stealing the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London.

The colour on black and white animated titles are interesting as always

As such, Scotland Yard has less of a part to play, with the main audience identification figures instead being a young couple – he's a guard at the tower, she's a means by which he can be coerced into cooperating with the gang – and a hapless German tourist who become involved up in the gang's plans by design and accident respectively.

Money-directed professional voyeurism

Though the former are classic Wallace types – the girl is even taken prisoner by yet another one of those cars that dispenses knockout gas into the passenger compartment at the flick of a dashboard switch – the tourist is the obvious invention of the filmmakers, presumably intended to make the film more accessible to German audiences, especially given that he is played by series regular Eddi Arent.

The touristic gaze

Otherwise it's largely business as usual, with Klaus Kinski prominent as one of the robbers and another escaping from Dartmoor, seemingly the only correctional facility in the Wallaceverse, pursued by those firearm equipped policemen that curiously go against the myth of the British police his work otherwise promulgated.

Having said this, the presence of Francis and Sangster does however seem to give the British aspects of the production a touch more authenticity than was often the case on the all-German productions, with more substantial location shooting around the Tower and Picadilly Circus.

If both locations highlight the imagined / inauthentic aspect of the krimi, this is also more deliberate than usual thanks to Arent's character and the inherently touristic nature of the Tower itself, with Beefeater guards and suchlike already 'putting on a show'.

Soho sleaze; note the apparent lesbians behind Arent

The device of having the robbers first do a dress rehearsal with a mock up of the chamber in the tower also helps here, self-consciously foregrounding the studio bound nature of other aspects of the production to provide that convenient get out whereby the failure of something to look like the real thing could be passed off as a knowing gesture.

This said, the dramatic explosion on board a ship at the film's climax is all too obviously a bit of modelwork, while the execution of the real robbery proves fairly perfunctory compared to Rififi's daring silent centrepiece sequence and the in some ways comparable Grand Slam, in which Kinski also appears.

Fans of Francis and Sangster's work for Hammer and company may care to note the presence of Evil of Frankenstein's Katy Wild and dancer / choreographer Julie Mendez, who also appeared in She, in small roles; the latter also briefly exposes her breasts in the obligatory Soho club scene to provide an early instance of the kind of more daring material increasingly commonplace in the colour krimis.

Those seeking giallo connections will find them in the fact that the camera operator is none other than Ronnie Taylor, later to serve as director of photography on Argento's Opera and Sleepless.

With future Academy Award winners Francis and Taylor on board it's little surprise that Traitor's Gate looks good, although Francis's characteristically skilful but anonymous approach towards direction – as David Pirie argues, he was probably a better craftsman than Terence Fisher, but sometimes only brought craft to his work – means that there also less of the experimentation and neo-expressionism characterising Harald Reinl and Alfred Vohrer's krimis.

While there are plenty of subjective shots through telescopes, binoculars and so forth, as the robbers stake out the Tower, there is nothing comparable to the skull's eye view shots in The Skull nor the filter lighting effects in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.

Kinski and weapon in a shot that would look good in 3D

Though Kinski is a bit more subdued than his usual this can be accounted for more positively as being an indication of his character being a solid professional. In contrast it's the same old thing from Arent, either welcome or a necessary evil depending on your tolerance for his comic pratfalls and to-camera mugging; to the uninitiated, think of Arent as the Michael Ripper or Luciano Pigozzi of the krimi, that kind of reassuring figure whose presence reassures that you're going to get what you expect, even if not always anything beyond this.

In line with this Peter Thomas delivers an effective score characterised by his usual quirks of unusual (male) vocalism and odd noises against the swing and lounge beats, making one wonder if he might be considered as something of the krimi equivalent of Ennio Morricone in the Italian western.

Monday, 15 September 2008

City of the Living Dead poster

When I think of City of the Living Dead I think of this artwork. which I fondly recall seeing on the video box covers in the early 80s, or the US Gates of Hell zombie face over the city image. What does the Italian locandina art looks like?

Anyway, it was just on Ebay but was 'too rich for my blood' at the moment.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Midnight Blue

Three female athletes, Rita, Elena and Francesca, decide to spend the weekend at the luxurious beach-front house belonging to Francesca's mother. Their break from training is soon interrupted by three men, Bruno, Mario and Pierluigi. While certainly prone to the usual macho antics the men seem normal enough – sufficiently such, at least, for the men to be invited to stay at the beach house overnight, with all the attendant fumblings, and for the women to think nothing of Pierluigi's making a telephone to an unspecified associate.

Forgotten auteur #507?

The next morning things take a dramatic turn as, visiting town for provisions with Pierluigi in tow, Francesca notices the newspaper headline: three dangerous convicts, including a rapist and a murderer, have escaped from jail.

Gratuitous nudity

Natural lighting

All too obvious attempts at style

No prizes for guessing whom...

And no prizes, despite the misleading porno-sounding title, for identifying the chief inspiration behind this obscure 1979 thriller from the equally obscure Raimondo Del Balzo.

Yes, it is indeed yet another film sullo stesso filone Last House on the Left, following the well-trodden path of Late Night Trains, Terror Express, La Settima Donna and company; although the men's wait for their underworld contact also raises the intriguing possibility of a Cul de Sac / Waiting for Godot absurdist scenario, this predictably doesn't really materialise.

The most obvious departure from the usual formula is thus that the three women have the potential to offer more formidable opponents on account of their athletic training. Unfortunately the three actresses – none particularly famous or notable, with the most recognisable face being that of Dirce Funari in a supporting role as their coach, Silvia – fail to convince as athletes. As cheerleaders giving a us a “T” and an “A” yes, but as Olympic hopefuls no.

Then again, the three men are not the most convincingly desperate degenerates you'll have seen. Though at a pinch this could be part of Del Balzo's strategy, represent typical / respectable seeming bourgeois types as rapists and killers by way of making a feminist political point, I think it's probably more likely to be a reflection of the limited pool of talent he was working with and unsatisfactory writing.

In the latter regard one thing that stands out is why three escaped convicts would take time out to go for a swim and have one of their number go into town without bothering to disguise himself when he knows his face is likely to be plastered all across the front of the papers. Another, though this could be a reflection of the English dubbing voices, is that the film feels curiously devoid of place, being neither obviously an Italian product nor one that goes to any particular lengths to pass itself off as American and, as such, less able to make any kind of statement on “leaden years” Italy or post-Watergate / Vietnam War America.

While the exploitable content is enhanced by deeply cynical ending somewhat reminiscent of Di Leo's borderline filone entry To Be Twenty – an impressive film which does successfully relate to its specific time and place – in approach if not wider dramatic impact and significance, Del Balzo is less successful when he tries to inject a degree of style into the proceedings.

Frustrating the implied viewer's desires or just bad filmmaking?

Too often his use of handheld equates to shots that are inadequately lit or which don't quite manage to follow the action. Though these could again be taken as anti-exploitation elements in the manner of some of Jess Franco's works, in that you want a sex scene, I'll give you one but deliberately frustrate your expectations / desires way, it seems more likely to be a case of trying to cover up shortcomings elsewhere with a surfeit of style that only serves to make the film's deficiencies all the more evident.

An early shot of a building is also characteristic here, as in addition to using a crane shot in that 'because I could' manner Del Balzo also breaks out the distorting lens for no obvious reason.

In sum, a curio that can best be recommended to those who have seen its predecessors and feel the need to complete their viewing set.

[The film is available in English dubbed Greek subtitled VHS rip from Cinemageddon]

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

I Gabbiani volano basso / Seagulls Fly Low

In this obscure 1978 thriller Maurizio Merli is cast somewhat against type as a professional killer. I say somewhat because, as we soon learn, he's not really a bad guy and more a victim of circumstance: a Vietnam veteran who grew tired of the war and deserted, he found himself in Italy where he was forced into working for businessman-cum-criminal Micheli, played by Mel Ferrer.

The film begins with what is supposed to be Merli's last job, the assassination of Martini, a former business partner of Micheli and his colleague Calvi; though some of the organisation's own men, like the one played by Franco Garofalo, could easily have performed the hit just as well, Micheli correctly felt it safer to employ an outsider.

Merli's problems only really start as he boards the plane for New York, equipped with a one-way ticket and a forget passport. One of the other passengers suffers a heart attack and everyone has to disembark and wait in the departure lounge. In an uncharacteristic loss of composure, Merli comes to believe that his fake passport has been detected by the airport security, and thus flees from the airport and back to Micheli.

Maurizio Merli as Jeff Blynn?

Maurizio Merli sans moustache

We might however wonder if he doesn't make too much a show of his panic, running through the airport, stealing a car and then driving off at high speed; perhaps airport security was just that bit more relaxed 30 years ago.

While Micheli deals with the situation with customary calmness, helping Merli to change his appearance and arranging for another passport to be made – I keep using the actor's name because his character tellingly doesn't really have one, being referred to as “the mechanic” and “the freak” initially and then using the alias “Albert Morgan” – Calvi starts to worry about his own exposure and thus orders Garofalo to take care of Micheli, setting up Merli to take the fall...

Some dubious red tinted Vietnam flashbacks

Competently if unexceptionally directed, as the kind of film where the stylish moments tend to come across as such, rather than being seamlessly integrated into the whole, and featuring a good cast, also including Dagmar Lassander as a nightclub proprietor and Nathalie Delon as the lost soul who takes sympathy on Merli (“you mustn't give up now; it's not as if you've killed somebody” ironically foregrounding exactly what he cannot tell her) to add glamour and romance, it's something of a mystery why Seagulls Fly Low isn't better known.

Featuring a passable quotient of action, plenty of suspense and a suitably dark and cynical 70s worldview – though film noir and French poetic realism certainly establish a longer heritage here – the film gives Merli far more to do as an actor than was usually the case, his role being marked by a world-weary reluctance to use a gun or his fists alien to his Iron Inspector characters and, after he meets Delon, the tentative possibility of his life taking another course.

Perhaps part of the problem was that Merli's fans were happy to see him play an essentially tragic, doomed character, but wanted to see him go down fighting rather more if he was not to ultimately be triumphant. To make a neo-noir comparison, trying imagining a Point Blank where Lee Marvin's character didn't go on a quixotic quest for his money.

Another possibility is that in initially looking a bit like Jeff Blynn, with longer and bushier hair than usual, and then losing the iconic moustache, he simply wasn't immediately recognisable as Merli. To make a noir comparison, we might think of Orson Welles's deconstruction of Rita Hayworth's image in The Lady from Shanghai.

The familiar image of a plane departing

Or maybe it's just the title: while its meaning is explained in the course of the film, it doesn't exactly tell you what to expect. In the world of the filone cinema this mattered, as director Giorgio Cristalli clearly knew from previous credits such as You're Jinxed, Friend, You've Met Sacramento and Four Gunmen of the Holy Trinity.

To summarise, a film that's worth the Merli fan's attention but which probably won't appeal to the more casual poliziotto viewer who only wants to see car chases, shootouts and fist-fights.

[The film is available on VHS rip from Cinemageddon]

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Extrasensorial / Blood Link / The Link / Blutspur

You never know quite what you're going to get with an Alberto De Martino film. Responsible for some of the worst examples of filone cinema, such as Puma Man and Miami Golem, he's also made directed some seriously underrated films like 7 Hyden Park, A Special Magnum for Tony Saitta and this 1982 horror-thriller.

Indeed, had Blood Link / Extrasensorial been directed by someone better known like Brian De Palma or David Cronenberg – as two contemporary reference points, for reasons that will become clear – I have little doubt that the film would be acknowledged as a classic of its type.

Dealing with the romantic theme of the doppelganger in a contemporary guise that incorporates extra sensory powers – hence the alternative title – the film opens with a waltz scene that turns into a murder scene to recall the opening moments of Shadow of a Doubt.

Given that Hitchcock's film was also intimately concerned with doubles we may assume this to be a deliberate quotation on De Martino's part, especially given that the killer, like his counterpart in Hitchcock film targets lost soul type older women.

Beyond this the film riffs on a number of more general Hitchcockian themes, such as the transference of guilt and the double pursuit narrative whereby the “wrong man” must catch the guilty one to prove his own innocence to the typically unimaginative and ineffectual authorities.

Just a dream?

Martino also subtly misdirects us in this opening sequence as, breaking it down logically, the killer would have to have murdered his victim in plain sight of all least some of the others in the ballroom.

As the narrative continues, Dr Craig Mannings wakes up from his seeming nightmare – “I guess it was just a nightmare” – to the sound of the telephone ringing. It is his colleague and girlfriend Dr Julie Warren, reminding him that they have an important meeting at the university where they have to demonstrate that their research warrants further funding.

The meeting does not go well. Mannings insults the board and refusing to tell them what they want to know, with its head in any case being somewhat biased against their research, which involves the use of acupuncture and electric shocks with Mannings himself as the chief test subject, as unscientific.

Waking dreams?

Worse for Mannings, however, are the visions that trouble him on his way to campus, in which he sees himself picking up and murdering another woman, along with various curious details like writing on a boat in German – a language he has little or no knowledge of.

Mannings starts to believe that his experiments have unleashed something within him connected to his past – a past which, even by the standards of the Italian giallo is unusually traumatic.

For starters he and his brother Keith were born conjoined. Then their parents died in an accident when they were seven years old, leaving them to be brought up by different foster parents. Then Keith himself apparently died in another accident when he was 17. “I've been searching for the answers since I was seven years old,” as Craig remarks.

Stalk and slasher imagery with a twist

Or, rather, didn't: Keith is alive and killing in Hamburg, Germany – thus explaining the boat – and, sharing a psychic connection with his brother, also knows that Craig is well on his way to realising this and endevouring to stop him...

With its wintry locations, psychosomatic weird science and conjoined twin motif Extrasensorial recalls elements of De Palma's Sisters and Cronenberg's The Brood and Scanners. Crucially, however, De Martino uses these building blocks to create something that is recognisably his own, as further testified to by the way in which Dead Ringers and Raising Cain seem to almost return the compliment at times by then further developing some of Extrasensorial's themes and ideas.

The old through a fish tank shot

And there are certainly a lot going on around such seemingly uncharacteristic Italian horror topics as memory and identity and – perhaps more familiar, if because commonly used as an analytic tool here – the workings of the unconscious. It's not difficult to interpret Craig and Keith as representing ego and id respectively or Keith as the repressed side of Craig who gives free rein to anti-social and murderous impulses his brother denies, or to see them as introvert and extravert incarnations of the same person.

Here we might also note Craig's more assertive / aggressive response to the review board and his remark to its head: “I trust you have no difficulty finding the right patients?” “No, actually I have a great deal of difficulty. In fact we're looking right now for a really tight-assed subject to see how we can loosen him up. Would you volunteer Dr Adams?”

The thing is that it's almost too easy to invoke the ideas of Freud, Jung and company here. A more cinema-specific alternative is to read the opening scene as establishing a kind of Deluzean “crystalline image” with a temporary circuit of the real and the virtual chasing one another; significantly Deleuze entitles a key chapter of his Cinema 2: The Time-Image “From recollection to dreams”. With that “irrational cut” from the ballroom to the antechamber we can't definitively say whether we're seeing a representation of Keith's actions, Craig's visions of them, or something in-between. (“I meet my siamese twin after all these years and he calls me a murderer!” “I saw you!”)

If generic requirements mean that De Martino ultimately has to provide a clearer resolution than the more thoroughgoing Deleuzean critic might like, as epitomised by the way in which the final shock is more a detachable fragment in the manner of Carrie than a challenge to narrative closure, the director nevertheless does repeatedly confuse things and states by continually using mirrors within his compositions along with some adroitly executed match cuts that take us from one brother and location to the other. (Unfortunately, as is so often the case with this kind of film, the unsatisfactory pan and scan presentation has a tendency to make a something of a mockery of the filmmakers work, undoubtedly further contributing to their ghettoisation.)

The curse of panning and scanning strikes again

The other cornerstones of the film are Michael Moriarty's performances as the brothers, who start out with their own particular mannerisms – Craig plays with his hair when he is nervous, for instance – but quickly pick up on each others quirks, albeit with an apparent difference insofar as Keith consciously imitates Craig whereas Craig seems unawares that he is picking things up from Keith.



Keith and Craig

Cameron Mitchell plays an over the hill ex-boxer turned wrestler who has relocated from the US to Germany with his daughter, an old acquaintance of Craig's who has the misfortune to come across Keith first. His performance is also endearingly (sym)pathetic, making for a satisfying contrast with the smug, self-satisfied Max Morlacchi of Blood and Black Lace nearly 20 years earlier. (The use of German locations is explained by the co-production partners on the film being Italian, American and German.)

Who am I? Where amI?

The two female leads, Sarah Langenfeld as Mitchell's rightfully concerned daughter, and Penelope Milford, as Dr Warren, likewise deliver more than satisfactory performances, helped by the fact that their roles having more depth to them than many comparable films. Both are active rather than passive characters, going some way towards offsetting the more straightforwardly exploitative 'tits and a scream' aspects of the roles, although their divergent fortunes could be read as telling.

No less than Ennio Morricone delivers a simple but effective score that is by turns romantic and suspenseful while Inferno and Phenomena cinematographer Romano Albani meets all the demands of De Martino's sophisticated mise en scene, producing several layered foreground / background compositions and distorting effects.