Wednesday, 28 January 2009

L'Onorata famiglia / L'Onorata famiglia - uccidere è cosa nostra

This is one of those films that both makes you glad for the existence of all manner of Italian rarities on Greek VHS and sad that the dubbed, panned and scanned presentation of them makes it unlikely that they will ever reach an audience beyond the cognoscenti.

This is the kind of thing we're dealing with here

For The Honoured Family – a better title than the on-screen The Big Family – is a powerful example of the sullo stesso filone Godfather mafia film with strong performances and direction and nicely mixture of action, suspense, intrigue and expose of the land of the lupara blast.

Some measure of the film’s capacity for surprise can be gleaned from its initial narrative. We begin with the introduction of Richard Conte and the establishment of his conflict with second-billed Raymond Pellegrin. Conte’s character, Antonio Marchesi, has recently come to Sicily from the US, whilst Pellegrin’s, Don Peppino Scalise, is longer-established. Believing that he has the support of his associates in New York, Marchesi refuses Scalise’s ‘offer’ to sell some land – at a cut-down rate, of course – and receives his reply in the form of an attack on his offices, in which his bodyguard are killed to convey to him that he had better accept.

So far, so predictable, if at the same time suggestive of the a different balance of power between old and new worlds than its US model. The same can be said of Marchesi’s over-confident reaction, as he plans a hit on Scalise. We might also read the resolution of this duel in similar fashion, as a tragic case of mistaken identity sees Marchesi kill his own brother to apparently provide extra impetus for what we assume to be a mafia war story between lighter and darker grey coded factions.

What happens next, however, is somewhat unexpected, if also helps to make sense of the role to be played by Commissario La Manna, a Sicilian born but hitherto Milan based cop.

For Scalise decides that Marchesi has had his chance and sends his executioners, played by Sal Borgese and Stelio Candelli, to eliminate his rival.

It’s an indication of the rules of the game here, that reality trumps star power, and neatly sets things up for what then emerges as the real confrontation between Scalise and La Manna to reveal the reach of the octopus’s tentacles across all levels of Sicilian society.

There could be a point about the shadowy nature of the legal system here, but it's difficult to tell

Thus we see La Manna being offered a fast-track promotion to a post back on the mainland by the local judiciary; the intimidation and murder of witnesses and innocents, including a particularly well-executed chase through an orange grove vaguely reminiscent of the caccia sequence in The Big Gundown; assorted admissions of impotence from police and civilians alike; and, perhaps most daring of all, an attack on the church for its willingness to accept dirty money. (Another nice touch here sees the Don sufficiently preoccupied with business that he closes the window on the orphans – how many orphaned through mafia activities, we wonder – whom the priest has sing a song in his honour.)

Another element that stands out is the way the filmmakers deal with the time-honoured car bomb: La Manna gets into his car and puts his key in the ignition. There’s a close-up and a pause, then a cut to a long shot, but no explosion. This is not to say it’s an impossibility, more that such a dramatic demonstration of power seems uncalled for at this stage in the narrative.

Director and co-writer Tonino Ricci also makes good use of the rural and urban landscapes of Sicily, with the atmosphere of place further enhanced by Bruno Nicolai’s score in which the marranzanu or ‘Jews harp’ is used prominently.

Recommended, though one also hopes that a restored DVD release will emerge soon to allow for a better recognition of the direction, cinematography and production design.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Programming cult cinema

I'm involved with the running of my local film society, the Edinburgh Film Guild. The main thing I do, besides some technical stuff, is programming. Until now it's always been fairly conservative, with an eye to showing our audience a mixture of classic Hollywood, world cinema, silents and documentaries - nothing too out there.

For our next season, however, we're going to start doing additional screenings where the brief is that anything goes. Well, not quite - I would be wary of showing Cannibal Holocaust or any other film that's in breach of UK animal cruelty laws - but otherwise, I pretty much have a free hand in programming four six film seasons of stuff that our audience wouldn't normally see.

In this position, what would you show? I have some ideas - a friend and I enjoyed a good Oz-sploitation double-bill a couple of weeks ago, and I'm sure there's a "Wizards of Oz" line-up just waiting to be put together, and there's the inevitable Euro crime / westerns / horror standbys - but I thought I'd throw it open and see what comes up :-)

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Le Porno Killers / The Porno Killers

If nothing else The Porno Killers has one of the all-time great titles, the kind that is guaranteed to attract the attention of the potential viewer. Unfortunately that's about all it has going for it, despite a plethora of nudity, violent action and – in the version under review at least, which also admittedly suffered from being somewhat bleached out – hardcore inserts featuring anonymous bodies rather than those of the lead performers.

Reminiscent at times of Meyer's Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, Franco's Red Lips films, Thelma and Louise and Baise Moi, the most interesting aspect of the film is probably its take on female sexuality, with the two protagonists assuming an active rather than a passive role and generally providing the superior to the men.

What are we to make of these characters? Are they progressive, reactionary or both? Fantasy figures on the part of the director and his audience, expressions of his and the implied viewer's fears, or both?

Given that provenance of the film, it seems safe to assume that shock value was the first thing on director and writer Roberto Mauri's mind, and that any subtext we may read in is purely accidental.

Does Mark Shanon make an uncredited appearance; there's a guy with his moustache and a indistinct tattoo, but I wasn't 100 per cent certain it was him.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Sesso Nero / Black Sex

This was the only one of the four films Joe D'Amato made in the Dominican Republic in the late 70s that I had not seen until now, the others being Porno Holocaust, Erotic Nights of the Living Dead and Orgasmo Nero.

Unlike Porno Holocaust and Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, which also featured Mark Shanon and functioned as horror / porn hybrids, Sesso nero is more a drama / porn combination, being structured around Shanon's character, himself named Mark, having a terminal illness and reminiscing about his past life and loves whilst also making the most of the time left him. (Long term Shanon fans will here find the nature of his illness amusing and somewhat appropriate; those who don't know what I'm talking about and are sufficiently intrigued to seek out the film will soon know and see for themselves, in unpleasant close-up.)

A dramatic scene that is seen on the television in Absurd. The sex that follows moments later, however, is not.

In particular, one woman, Mira, played by Annj Goren, keeps appearing and disappearing before Mark like a ghost, in the street, on the beach or in place of the dancer in a nightclub act.

While the last allows for some sharp match-cut editing to further express Mark's confused perceptions, it feels characteristic of the film's lack of aspirations that D'amato doesn't attempt any, instead being content to simply intercut between Goren and the other women.

Similarly the rest of the film featuring many unimaginative shot-reverse shot constructions during the dialogue scenes; functional handheld camera during the sex ones as a means of getting closer to the action in a "frenzy of the visible" sort of way, and a fair degree of economical use of the zoom lens in lieu of a more complex camera movement and set-ups.

Note how Shanon's character being half out of the shot does not appear to be down to panning and scanning.

More positively Shanon is given more scope to demonstrate his abilities as an actor as well as a woodsman. He acquits himself credibly, reminding us in the process that like porn performers of the same era in the USA, he was after all an actor to begin with.

At the same time one of the things which hurts the film as a drama rather than a porno, especially in relation to the otherwise comparable Richard Harrison / Susan Scott entry Orgasmo Nero - where the illness took the form of fertility problems - is that the dynamic of its sex scenes still tends to be dominated by the need to give visible evidence of penetration and ejaculation.

Likewise, while one of the two group sex scene might be justified as one of Mark's fantasies the other lacks his coded presence and thus feels more like a straightforward porn scenario of the type where meaningless sex can and does happen anytime and anyplace between anybody.

Even worse, there are also some moments where dramatic scenes look to have been constructed more around the J&B bottle than the actors, as when Mark collapses after being given fellatio by his friend Jack's wife, played by Lucia Ramirez.

Who or what is the real star of this scene?

Though Ramirez doesn't do any champagne bottle opening tricks this time round her admirers will not otherwise be disappointed by her performance, although it is Goren who really steals the show in the sex film stakes. Again, however, her scenes suggest the basic issue with the film, that it's too dark and unpleasant to work as a conventional porn piece, but too much of a porn film to be able to really take as anything else. Whatever the case, the combination is very much D'Amato.

Gratuitous but hopefully safe-for-work images of Ramirez; you can fill in the rest of the picture outwith the frame for yourselves

This sense of the auteur also comes through the fact that a lot of the footage seems to come from the other films in the series or at least invokes a strong sense of deja vu, as does a blink and you'll miss him cameo from writer George Eastman as the owner of the nightclub and an old friend of Mark's. While obviously explicable in terms of laziness and lack of budget this approach works well within the context of the film as, just like Shanon's character, the D'Amato fan feels that old memories are resurfacing and images of the past coming back to haunt him; call it our D'Amato repetition compulsion, that we cannot help ourselves and need more.

In this regard it's also odd however that Nico Fidenco's music, while effective in its own right, doesn't evoke many associations. Perhaps Marcello Giombini should have been given the nod instead?

Not D'Amato's best by any means, but interesting enough to be worth a look.

Come svaligiammo la banca d'Italia / How we Robbed the Bank of Italy

This is one of those films which simultaneously confirms Lucio Fulci's abilities as a film-maker and indicates the problems he had in having these be recognised by mainstream critics.

Done with mirrors

For while a thoroughly competent piece of work from the writer-director, it again sees Fulci largely subordinating his own interests to showcasing the talents of the stars, Franco and Ciccio, popular comedians whose act, no matter how accomplished in its own right - and make no mistake they were damn good at what they did - was never going to appeal to the elite tastemakers.


Franco and Ciccio essentially play themselves as per usual, but are here cast as brothers, representing two-thirds of the current generation of a family with a long and illustrious history in crime.

Yet another bungle

Indeed, the black sheep of the family is the one who became a priest. Tellingly, however, this amounts to nothing more than a gag rather than being used as the springboard for a more thoroughly developed anti-clerical critique as in Fulci's more personal films.

The inversion of conventional morality?

Franco and Ciccio are also, however, thoroughly hopeless as criminals, such that their older and considerably more successful brother Paolo would rather have them stay at home, out of trouble.

To this end, he keeps his brothers supplied with a steady stream of female company, not so much because they are playboy types, instead being content to settle down with one woman apiece in a more traditional, conventional and respectable manner, and more because it has proven exceedingly difficult for Paolo to find women able to tolerate his brothers' idiocy for more than a few days or weeks at the most.

Until now, that is, as a visit to the nightclub reveals two women, Maralina and Rosalina, who are even dumber than Franco and Ciccio and thus look to be the perfect paid companions for them.

The girls

The problem is that Maralina and Rosalina also fantasise about being with tough-guy gangsters, giving Franco and Ciccio a further impetus to prove themselves. (In an ironic turn of fate, the Finnish-born Lena von Martens, who plays Maralina, apparently turned to escorting after her film career came to an end.)

Another botched job leads Paolo to take a different tack. He tells Ciccio his long-planned scheme for one last big score, namely robbing the bank of Italy, in the hope that his younger brother - the slightly more intelligent one of the pair - will realise that a life of crime is just not for him. Unfortunately Ciccio is also smart enough to secretly steal his over-confident brother's plans and resolves to carry out the robbery of the century with the help of Franco and some of their still more inept friends...

While thoroughly predictable in its Big Deal on Madonna Street styled antics from herein on, How We Robbed the Bank of Italy is never less than entertaining and manages to raise more than a few laughs and smiles along the way through the antics of its stars.

It also showcases Franco and Ciccio's versatility as comedians, with a combination of the verbal and the physical, the former relying on language and dialect and thus less accessible to non-Italian or indeed Northern Italians, though another recurring source of humour is the brothers' attempts to learn and use English. ("Frank, please," as Ciccio exasperatedly remarks in nearly every scene.)

The duo also perform a musical number that represents the reduction ad absurdum of the then-popular French Ye-Ye style, with Franco's lyrics comprising nothing more than "Yeah-Yeah" and Ciccio providing the occasional scream. This sequence, which results from the men being mistaken for members of the group on account of their costumes also highlights a connection with fumetti culture, with Franco and Ciccio's outfits being in the Diabolik and Kriminal vein.

An ironic critique of mass / popular culture; a defence of traditional cunning, both or neither?

Such moments again however highlight one of the basic issues in appreciating the film, that it helps to know the background context, one rather removed from the international art cinema.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Una Donna per sette bastardi / The Sewer Rats

With both the One Woman for Seven Bastards and Sewer Rats titles proving apposite, this is one nasty little film from first - a sequence including a POV shot from the perspective of a man being buried alive - to last.

Based on a story by star Richard Harrison, it plays a bit like a contemporary riff on Greed, crossed with A Fistful of Dollars - the film which Harrison turned down, to the eternal detriment of his career, which I suspect The Sewer Rats can't exactly have done much for either - and elements of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Cut Throats Nine, Django Kill and McCabe and Mrs Miller.

Indeed, were it not for the fact that Harrison's mysterious crutch-using stranger arrives in the no-horse town after his car breaks down on the road or that there's J&B whisky in the bar, the film could easily be taken for a western filmed on some extremely run-down Spanish or Italian set.

Even the J&B bottle looks beaten up

Pleasantville it is not, with the nameless place perhaps resembling nothing so much as Hammett's Poisonville instead in the effect it has on all the existing inhabitants, each of whom has their own story and secrets, and the newcomer whose arrival threatens the already precarious dynamics between them.

Antonio Casale plays Carl, the jealous husband who owns the tavern and forms the only point of contact with the outside world, making regular 300km trips in his pick-up to stock up on J&B, beer and other necessities. He's also, in possible reference to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, in possession of a stolen strongbox.

Casale, disreputable looking as ever

Gordon Mitchell plays Gordon, an ex-military man wanted for desertion or other offences, whilst Luciano Rossi plays a harmonica playing mute with a penchant for spying on Carl's wife, Rita.

Rita in defiant mood

She, meanwhile, is incarnated by the beautiful Dagmar Lassander in full-on tramp mode, taking great pleasure in turning on the men, in both senses of that term, whilst fully enjoying her effects upon them and pursuing her own agenda.

The film is replete with the kind of scenarios that implicate the viewer in whatever dubious pleasure he takes from them

Even without the scuzziness of the Danish-subtitled VHS sourced presentation under review, this is the kind of film that leaves you wanting to take a shower afterwards. As such, Roberto Bianchi Montero, the director of The Slasher is a Sex Maniac, is perfect for it. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the music, which adds neither atmosphere nor tension.

Barbablù / Bluebeard / Barbe-bleue / Blaubart

Why discuss Edward Dmytryk's Richard Burton vehicle Bluebeard in a blog dedicated to European popular cinema?

Well, for starters it's a French-Italian-West German co-production, with Italian co-writers, including Maria Pia Fusco, a frequent contributor to the Black Emanuelle series.

Then it's got an extensive list of Euro-performers, playing the titular characters' victims alongside the higher-billed US imports Raquel Welch and Joey Heatherton: Virna Lisi, Nathalie Delon, Marilu Tolo, Karin Schubert, Agostina Belli and Sybil Danning.

Then there's the quirky soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, which I can only describe as the giallo version of what Giu La Testa was to its spaghetti western predecessors, and the cinematography by Gabor Pogany.

Every frame is beautifully composed and lit

And, finally, there are certain intertextual references which suggest that Dmytryk had either seen some of Bava and Freda's films, namely The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, Blood and Black Lace and A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, or if not that they were working from some of the same reference points.

It's the last aspect which is, of course, the most complex: when you're dealing with a mythic / fairy-tale / Gothic text, which Bluebeard is despite regardless of whatever period trappings the film-maker happens to give it - in this case a somewhat vaguely defined inter-war setting, with Bluebeard as a Red Baron style war hero and enthusiastic anti-Bolshevik cum fascist.

To wit, we've got the new wife who is too inquisitive for her own good, breaks the prohibition not to enter into the forbidden room, and thereby discovers the truth about her husband, that he has murdered his previous wives; there's also a hint of Poe's The Black Cat.

Bluebeard watches

What we've then got, however, is a distinctively modern take on the subject, through the foregrounding of Bluebeard's impotence and the way in which this wife then attempts to affect a kind of quasi-psychoanalytic talking cure on him so that she may avoid the fate that has befallen her predecessors. (Those who have seen Femina Ridens may also see something of a precursor here, whilst there's also the obligatory allusion to Psycho.)

The obligatory dark-room scene

The setting also allows for a mass-psychology of fascism type interpretation, in which the ostensibly normal, outwardly respectable man can be the real monster. Besides suggesting a connection with Dmytryk's own Crossfire, in which a returning GI murders a Jewish man in an ironic comment on the existence of fascist attitudes in the US itself - in the original source novel the victim was homosexual, a theme too hot for Hollywood at the time - it also recalls a comment made by Freda:

"I believe in a subtle, psychological kind of horror [...] My theory is that authentic terror can be attained with simple, common means. The most terrifying monster is the neighbour who cuts his wife's throat."

Accordingly one wife (Schubert) is murdered because she threatens to reveal the secret of Bluebeard's impotence; another (Belli) because she proves more whore than virgin; a third (Tolo) because of her proto-feminist and left-wing politics; and a fourth (Lisi) simply because, much like Laura Betti's character in A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, she's simply extremely annoying...

More than Five Dolls for an August Moon

Schubert's 'accidental' shooting during a hunting trip highlights another intertext, Renoir's The Rules of the Game, down to the blasting of assorted rabbits and other game animals, whilst the way in which Bluebeard accumulates hunting trophies to signify the passage of time recalls a montage in Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. (Both these are also, of course, films which also need to be read in relation to fascism.)

An abstract title image


Also amongst Bluebeard's trophies are abstract prints representing each of his wives. Taken from portrait photographs and manipulated, these also form the Saul Bass-style credits sequence to the film, pointing to the possible influence of Vertigo - as another film about obsession, amour fou and necrophilia - and the further mess of influences and intertexts.

The domineering picture of the dead mother

In giallo terms, meanwhile, the distinction between Heatherton's wife and her less fortunate predecessors is that she sees what they did not here: looking at the prints she starts to imagine faces within them, with adding eyes further confirming her suspicions. In other words, it's all about the problem of vision, of seeing things correctly.

Besides some of the murder set pieces, the other area where the giallo influence is most apparent is visually. Though Dmytryk's style is more restrained that that of Bava or Freda, the rich production design, with the the various rooms of Bluebeard's castle colour-coded, and expressive/neo-expressionist use of colour seem to come straight out of the Italian directors' playbook.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Poe Centenary Article

A nice little article on Poe's contribution to the formation of the detective genre:


Just a brief note that I've renamed the Krimi blog again, from Krimi-nality to Krimi-nology:

Since I've also put it out of sequence by posting The Trygon Factor piece, I may well also start updating the content with krimi related reviews from here, consolidating them in the one, more specific, place.

The Trygon Factor / Factor One / Das Geheimnis der weißen Nonne / The Mystery of the White Nuns

[Warning: this review contains spoilers]

The Trygon Factor
/ The Mystery of the White Nuns must rank as the most unusual of the Preben-Philipsen / Rialto film Edgar Wallace krimis. It’s not just the British director, The Witches' Cyril Frankel, and predominantly British cast, but almost the whole structure of the film. For in addition to incorporating giallo and superspy / comic book elements, the film repeatedly plays with familiar krimi film tropes in thoroughly unexpected ways that leave one wondering what exactly was intended and whether some of those involved might even have been at cross-purposes with one another.

What, no Edgar Wallace?

The opening pre-credits sequence sets this out quite nicely: It’s established that London is being plagued by a series of audacious heists that have left Scotland Yard baffled, until now. One of Superintendent Cooper-Smith’s (Stewart Granger’s) men, Sergeant Thompson, believes he has a lead and has gone to a country home, Emberday, to meet up with his contact, Sister Claire (Diane Clare).

The titular family are old, respectable and moneyed – albeit perhaps not as wealthy as they once were, assuming they have not let part of their home be used by the nuns out of philanthropy alone...

Who says nuns have no fun?

The Sergeant is right to be suspicious, all the more so when he happens to notice some of the nuns taking part in a cheesecake style photo-shoot with Trudy Emberday and finds his ‘innocent’ look around the grounds attracting excessive attention.

Unfortunately, having also been spotted by some of the other nuns talking with Sister Clare, he has also clearly learnt too much and is thus murdered by a black-clad, masked assassin who drowns him, with appropriate impiety, in the font.

Giallo murder #1

So far, so krimi, except for the way that the story then continues is by identifying each and every one of the criminal gang for us; suffice to say that the mystery of the white nuns isn't.

Consequently, rather than being aligned with Cooper-Smith as he continues the investigation – why did Thompson’s body turn up in Wapping, some fifty miles away and why did his lungs contain fresh rather than Thames water being the first of the many questions; the link between the convent’s pottery factory and its London-based distributors the next – we are positioned more as external observers watching a game of move and countermove between the gang and Scotland Yard.

The times they are a changing

Besides the appearance and modus operandi of the murderer, with another victim later being drowned in the bath in a possible Blood and Black Lace reference, another giallo-esque aspect is a belatedly revealed – and thus none too effectively incorporated, except retrospectively in playing spot the perhaps lesbian-coded man-hater – element of gender confusion that wouldn’t have been too out of place in the likes of Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

Done with mirrors

The comic book or superspy aspect comes into play through the presence of Eddi Arent, as the sole krimi regular within the cast of the English-language version under review here. He plays a Continental safecracker smuggled into the country to help the gang penetrate an otherwise impenetrable safe with his rocket gun whilst wearing a yellow armoured suit, these being two pieces of apparatus that wouldn’t look out of place in Diabolik or Fantastic Argoman.

Arent goes to work

Another thing that is unusual here is the fate that befalls Arent’s character, along with the other men recruited for the job: It’s 'just not cricket,' a far cry from the usual Wallace criminal organisation that demands and rewards its members’ loyalty.

This said, the gang’s betrayals do feature another Wallace staple, namely the vehicle with the rear gas fill-able compartment, one of those elements that, if prefigured in Fritz Lang’s Weimar films, I’ve often wondered about in the post-WWII krimi in relation to the Einsatzgruppen of the intervening period...

In a similar manner the nuns’ order seems characteristic of Wallace’s treatment of religion and charitable organisations, modulating what might be seen as an attack on the former – i.e. a convent of criminal nuns – by foregrounding the latter – i.e. that these nuns do not represent any real order. Returning to the giallo, it’s a bit like the plethora of films there that feature fake or defrocked priests as killers, compared to the relative minority with actual killer priests, a have your cake and eat it strategy that lets the viewer take the message they want from the text.

Giallo murder #2

The marriage trajectory of the typical krimi damsel in distress is also spoofed somewhat, with the suave, droll and self-deprecating Cooper-Smith romancing a French hotel worker young enough to be his daughter and who quite candidly admits to being on the lookout for a wealthy English husband.

If the role of Luke Emberday, the obligatory upper-class twit cum madman who ought to be in the attic, cries out for Klaus Kinski, Robert Morley makes for a more than satisfactory Werner Peters stand-in as the ever-nervous Hubert Hamlyn, manager of the pottery’s distribution arm.

The Trygon, by the way, refers to the distinctive (de)mark on some of the pottery, three triangles (representing the three stated aims of the convent) which together enclose/delimit a fourth and create a fifth, that the gang uses to transport their ill-gotten gains and which perhaps recall The Lavender Hill Mob, or vice-versa, given the 1928 date of Wallace’s original novel, Kate Plus Ten.

In summary, an atypical krimi that may be best appreciated / approached by those already familiar with the more conventional aspects of the form.

Another giallo blog

Well worth a look:

La Polizia ha le mani legate / Killer Cop / The Police Can't Move / Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man

Having made a number of entertaining and effective gialli earlier in the 1970s Luciano Ercoli responded to the rise in popularity of the poliziotto in the middle of the decade and the political situation of the "Years of Lead" by turning his hand to the filone with the giallo-poliziotto crossover Troppo rischio per un uomo solo, this film and the once-believed-lost kidnap drama La Bidonata.

The story is straightforward, the narrative somewhat convoluted: A terrorist gang plant a bomb at an international conference in a hotel, killing and wounding various innocents. One of the investigating officers, the accident-prone but ambitious Balsamo, then happens upon one of the terrorists as he is leaving an apology for the atrocity, but is prevented from pursuing further when the man pulls a pistol. Balsamo is then put into police protection by Armando di Federico, played with typical gusto by the no-nonsense Arthur Kennedy, who has been assigned to head the investigation, until the time comes to give his testimone oculare. Unfortunately Balsamo then contrives to get himself assassinated, the assassin being played by the always welcome Gianfranco Cianfriglia. It's then up to Balsamo's friend and colleague Commissario Matteo Rolani, essayed by the invariably committed and convincing Claudio Cassinelli, to work out what is going on, bring everything together and generally save the day...

Though somewhat light in the flesh department, with the director's wife and muse Nieves Navarro / Susan Scott conspicious in her absence, Killer Cop - a retitling which gives a different slant on the proceedings than the original with its translation of The Police Have Their Hands Tied, or the alternative of Portrait of a 60% Perfect Man - otherwise delivers the goods, with strong characterisations and performances, as with Kennedy's character being known for his tendency to suck on mints when tense; necessary and sufficient levels of action, suspense and intrigue; and a soupcon of politics.

Ercoli and his screenwriters raise the subject of false flag terrorism and the apparent inability of the state in finding a solution, with a particularly interesting discussion amongst the passengers on a bus over whether the bombing was the work of reds or anarchists; whether they were acting on their own initiative or not, and the issue of strong versus weak government in relation to the Fascist past.

While probably purely co-incidental it all came across as a vernacular version of a similar public transport conversation in Slatan Dudow and Berthold Brecht's 1931 Kuhle Wampe - a film made in a similar crisis situation.

Issues of seeing correctly are also expressed by the fact that one of the terrorists, the one whom Balsamo could have identified, has actually lost his glasses and suffers from extremely poor vision. In addition to coincidentally or otherwise prefiguring a similar motif in Sergio Martino's Suspicious Death of a Minor, in which Cassinelli's investigator is continually breaking his glasses, this also seems to foreground a distinction between different types of poliziotto films.

To explain, by way of a bit of theory: In Cinema 1 Gilles Deleuze talks about two distinct forms of Hollywood genre cinema, those of the the large and the small form. Within the large form, within which Deleuze includes the gangster film, the basic structure is SAS'. Reading the situation, S, the protagonist acts, A, resulting in a new, usually improved situation, S'; the classical gangster film is actually different here, in that its trajectory is invariably a downwards one for the gangster protagonist, if thereby an upwards one for non-criminal society. Within the small form, within which Deleuze includes the mystery film, the basic structure is ASA'. Here the situation is initially unclear, only being revealed through the character's actions.

Transposing these ideas to the Italian filone cinema, I would argue that the more ostensibly apolitical poliziotto of the Umberto Lenzi sort, which characteristically takes the form of a succession of "binominal" duels between the cop and the criminals, is usually of the SAS' form. The protagonist knows who his antagonists are and that something is afoot. By contrast the more overtly political poliziotto of the Sergio Martino sort is usually of the ASA' form. The protagonist does not initially know who his antagonists are and thus proceeds blindly at first, acting to see what the situational consequences are and what "indices" are revealed.

Much like Ercoli's gialli, Killer Cop has a somewhat uneven tone. This is something that some may object to, that innocent people getting blown up should not be juxtaposed with slapstick comedy. In Ercoli's defence I would argue that the dose of comic relief supplied by Balsamo in particular was necessary to make the film palatable to its target audience within Italy.

Who would want to brave the mean streets of the time in going to the cinema to then see a film which dwelt on the aftermath of a terrorist bombing and offered only the scant relief that certain mavericks within the system might be capable of finding and dealing with those behind such crimes, albeit only after the (f)act?

It would have been too much, too depressing and despairing a conclusion. In such a popular / vernacular context, Ercoli's gallows humour has its reassuring function, that the good guys will prevail and the ordinary citizens be (mostly) saved.

He also has a knack for switching the tone from comic to tragic in an instant, as with the assassination of Balsamo when he foolishly goes shopping. One moment Balsamo is arguing with the stall-holder over his right to test the merchandise and accidentally disturbing the displays of fruit, the next he is knocking them over wholesale as a result of being shot.

The stall-holder's response is also telling and reassuring as he then concentrates his attention on the dying Balsamo rather than his spilled merchandise. An automatic response, perhaps, but one which also tells the viewer that there is a shared community of values that still prevail, even amongst the petty bourgeoisie.

Stelvio Cipriani provides another one of those same-sounding yet undeniably effective driving soundtracks.

In sum, another film that delivers everything required of it and a bit more...

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Some thoughts on Four Flies on Grey Red in relation to the movement- and time-images

In her insightful analysis of Four Flies on Grey Velvet in relation to the Deleuzean time-image, Colette Balmain emphasises the way in which the film foregrounds the Nietzschean "powers of the false".

Though Nina Tobias knows full well that Roberto is not her father and only looks like him, she nevertheless successfully manages to entertain this apparently life-enhancing delusion and successfully knowingly (dis)believe to the point of positioning Roberto as her father in order that she can extract her revenge; I say 'apparently' because Nina's tragedy is that she has not been able to overcome her past, which has determined her present and future, culminating in her demise at the climax of the film. At this stage in his career, Argento, that is, is perhaps not quite completely willing to endorse the murder of innocents, no matter how life-enhancing it may be for the other.

In passing, we might also wonder if this is also something of a reason why the anti-Nietzschean Hitchcock could never quite be a modern, time-image film-maker, that he was still too wedded to a pre-Nietzschean morality and absolutist world-view to allow the killers of Rope, Stage Fright or Strangers on a Train to get away with their otherwise artful crimes. (Yes, Hitchcock would sometimes cite De Quincey's On Murder as One of the Fine Arts, but did he really believe it or was it just for shock?)

Nina's demise itself is replete with meaning insofar as it recapitulates Roberto's decapitation nightmare, thus again presenting the actualisation of the virtual, and is tellingly immediately precipitated by Nina's looking back rather than forwards and thereby failing to see the truck parked in front of her.

In a similar way, though Roberto has not in fact killed anyone, his belief that he has is sufficient to position him within his appointed role in Nina's psycho-drama. Equally, however, this selfsame fact serves to also highlight one of the ways in which Four Flies on Grey Velvet functions as more of a movement-image film in other regards.

Nina, that is, can rely on Roberto's automatic sensory-motor response to the stimuli of having found himself been followed and now getting the opportunity to confront his persecutor, to put her scheme into motion.

This said, the importance of the virtual and the actual here is further confirmed by the location of this key scene in the film, namely an empty theatre. Argento also foregrounds Roberto's entry into this space through a hyper-realist series of four successive shots of his passing through bright red curtains. The first two of these and the fourth are framed from Roberto's point-of-view, but the third is from the reverse angle and thus presents Roberto's entry more from the (impossible) point of view of someone on the other side of the curtains, already positioned within the theatre.

Again, however, if this perhaps represents the actualisation of the virtual, as something Nina had previously planned for 'in her minds' eye', the fact remains that Roberto does not remain external to the set, as the passive seer of the time-image would, but rather changes the relationship amongst the other elements through his active presence amongst them in the manner of a movement-image protagonist.

In this regard, the sequence also presents a different working through of the analogous moment in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage where Sam's inability to fully extend his sensory-motor response into a completed action and his corresponding becoming seer are pivotal to all that follows thereafter.

In a similar vein, Profondo rosso will present a third variation on this scenario, as Marc enters into the set and the action without hinderance, but fails through his perceptual conditioning to notice the vital detail to which he should have responded until it is too late. The image which could or should have proved an impulse fails, that is, to do so.

If, then, Four Flies on Grey Velvet presents the actualisation of one virtual possibility, the one Nina had anticipated through her awareness of her husband's predictable - masculine - response to the stimuli presented before him, palimpsestically The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Profondo rosso present alternative incompossible versions of not dissimilar scenarios.

Friday, 2 January 2009

A couple of new Hammer related books

Music in film is often dismissed as having little cultural significance. While Hammer Film Productions is famous for such classic films as "Dracula" and "The Curse of Frankenstein", few observers have noted the innovative music that Hammer distinctively incorporated into its horror films.This book tells how Hammer Films commissioned composers at the cutting-edge of European musical modernism to write their movie scores, introducing the avant-garde into popular culture via the enormously successful venue of horror film. Each chapter addresses a specific category of the avant-garde musical movement. According to these categories, chapters elaborate upon the visionary composers who made the horror film soundtrack a melting pot of opposing musical cultures.

This is a strictly limited edition. Last year, a box of never-seen-before photos of Hammer Films productions was archived by Hammer expert Wayne Kinsey for the British Film Institute. Kinsey and the BFI were so impressed by the collection, that it was agreed the best should be published. Through these rare and mostly previously unseen images, this book tells the visual story of Hammer's output. You will be guided through this wonderful collection of photos by Kinsy himself, the celebrated author of "Hammer Films: The Elstree Studios Years" and "Hammer Films: The Bray Studios Years". The book explores the wider and fascinating side of one of the British film industry's greatest success stories, showing once and for all that Hammer was not just a purveyor of cheap horror pictures.In fact, they made films in a number of different genres such as war thrillers, gritty dramas, comedies and colourful swashbuckling adventures. Some of these were among their best films; 1959 is a case in point which included such classics as "Never Take Sweets from a Stranger", "Hell is a City" and "Yesterday's Enemy", the latter of which earned Hammer BAFTA nominations for best picture, best actor and best supporting actor. Hammer's films also benefited from an expert team of actors and technicians, including big names that on first glance would never have thought to be associated with Hammer including Robert Aldrich, Ken Adam, Joe Losey, Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, Donald Sutherland, Joan Fontaine, Richard Widmark, Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch. This is a limited edition hardcover book that is destined to become a highly sought-after collectors' item.