Monday 30 June 2008

Storie di vita e malavita / The Teenage Prostitution Racket / Prostitution

I've watched this 1975 film from Carlo Lizzani three times now and still can't quite get my head around it and whether it's offering serious social commentary on its subject, is exploiting it for sensationalist purposes, or – most likely on balance – a bit of both.

Certainly the first few moments pull no punches and make for decidedly uncomfortable viewing, as we get a grandmother pimping her purportedly 13-year-old granddaughter to passing motorists, with the girl exposing her breasts and pudenda before quickly moving to perform implied fellatio on the van driver who had thought he was only giving them a lift only a few moments earlier.

Their run-ins with a group of pimps who don't take kindly to incursions onto their turf forms a running thread through the remainder of the film, which presents a series of documentary-style reconstructions, each based on co-writer Marisa Rusconi's research.

The first of these case studies also works well, mainly because it seems more typical and credible. In it a naïve 16-year-old, Rosina, arrives in Milan from Sardinia. Her father died in an industrial accident, leaving Rosina to support the rest of the family. Being reluctant to marry a family friend several decades her senior, she has come to the city to take up work through her cousin. The job Rosina gets is, however, marginal at best, putting together bootleg tapes at piecework rates – if, that is, she even gets paid at all. At the weekend, another of the girls in the house-cum-workshop suggests that they go dancing. At the disco Rosina meets Salvatore, AKA Velvet. A pimp on the lookout for fresh meat, he turns on the charm and sweeps Rosina off her feet. By the time she realises his true nature, it is already too late...

The subsequent case studies have a tendency to be more sensationalistic and mondo-eseque. In one a girl from a good home, Gisella, is blackmailed into having relationships with men after she is photographed in a compromising situation. While one doesn't doubt that it could happen, it seems a somewhat inefficient and risky way of working compared to targeting others in Rosina's situation. In another a second respectable middle class girl prostitutes herself to express her contempt for her parents, before eventually confronting her father over his own liking for underage girls. Again, it seems too much like choosing the rarer specific case over the more routine and general one.

These later stories are also more explicit, with borderline hardcore footage of fellatio, pseudo-lesbian activity with a strap-on and penetration shots inserted into the narratives.

Insofar as this takes the film coming perilously close to itself exploitation what it is purporting to expose and condemn, it's difficult to know what director and co-writer Lizzani and his collaborators were thinking of here. Two possibilities do however spring to mind. One is that, like Salo as a whole or the final act of Di Leo's To Be Twenty, they are using a bait and switch approach, luring the spectator in with the promise of more routine exploitation pleasures before giving us rather more than we had bargained upon. Another is that it represents another part of Lizzani's political critique, that he wanted to universalise things more for the middle class audience than a succession of Rosina-type scenarios would have allowed for, with this allowing for a running theme of exploring and exposing the exploitative relationships inherent within capitalism society at all levels. (Or, to allude to another relevant but more straightfowardly generic title here, is it what have 'they' done to 'their' daughters, what 'you' have done to 'your' daughters or what 'we' are doing to 'our' daughters collectively?)

The young actresses look the age of their characters (“As far as make up goes, put on as little as possible – you always want to look younger than you are,” as Velvet instructs Rosina) making it the kind of film that it's hard to imagine someone contemplating making in today's climate and which, were it to somehow get backing, would in all likelihood still experience distribution and censorship problems; in this regard it is also worth noting that the Italian Raro Video release as Storie di vita e malavita omits the harder footage found in the Greek English-dubbed VHS as The Teenage Prostitution Racket.

Ennio Morricone provided the soundtrack and Franco Fraticelli was the editor.

Sunday 29 June 2008

Messalina, Messalina / Caligula II: Messalina, Messalina

This is one of those films whose production history is perhaps more interesting than what is on screen.

Telling the story of the infamous, sexually insatiable Roman empress in the form of a comedy, replete with nudity, vulgar humour and much softcore romping, before culminating with a played for laughs bloodbath in which limbs and heads are lopped off, it's reminiscent of a Decamerotic made several years after that filone had peaked commercially – not the sort of thing you would expect of a canny professional like Bruno Corbucci.

The explanation lies in the title and an opening credit about the source of the impressive Roman sets. For the film was made in the hope of cashing in on the success of the Bob Guiccone bankrolled Caligula, only to be released in advance of its much-troubled model in a case of what critic Kim Newman calls “premature emulation”: second guessing the market in the hope of being there first amongst a successful productions sullo stesso filone imitators, only to back the wrong film.

In addition to borrowing Caligula's sets, female leads Anneke di Lorenzo and Lori Wagner also reprise their roles as Messalina and Agrippina. Given that both were Penthouse Pets, its fairly clear where their talents do and do not lie, but also that the nature of the piece means a paucity of thespian abilities doesn't matter too much.

Tomas Milian and Bombolo seem to have stepped out of one of their poliziotto for Corbucci, with Milian wearing the same Monnezza wig and delivering the same kind of exaggerated, gesture-driven performance as Baba, a low-life vox populi, thief and conman who has the (mise en scène)fortune to come to the attention of Messalina and her emperor husband, while Bombolo plays a dim-witted career soldier charged at one point with finding men who measure up to Messalina's exacting criteria. Giovanni Cianfriglia also has a small action / stunt role.

Banditi a Milano / Bandits in Milan

For me, Carlo Lizzani is one of the largely unsung heroes of the Italian cinema. A politically committed figure who started out as the writer of a number of neo-realist films and as a documentarist, he increasingly moved into directing genre films in the 1960s and 1970s.

It sounds like a somewhat unlikely career trajectory until we bear in mind that the best known of his early works, Guiseppe De Santis's Bitter Rice, itself combine neo-realism and noir, political engagement and entertainment.

An expose of the exploitation of itinerant rice planters and harvesters in the Po Valley it was ironically criticised by Marxist commentators for its own exploitative elements, most famously the iconic image of Silvana Mangano wearing a tight sweater and short trousers working in the fields. These, the critics argued, had nothing to contribute to the class struggle.

What these critics forgot and what Lizzani has always remembered is that exploitation is a way to expose the mass audience to political content. It was all well and good for these same critics to prefer Luchino Visconti's La Terra trema on grounds of ideological and aesthetic purity but not so effective when we consider that it had to be subtitled in Italy itself for the characters' Sicilian dialect to be comprehensible and that its box-office failure put an end to the Visconti and the PCI's plans for two further similarly themed films.

Though some of the images are somewhat non-documentary realist, it's worth remembering that the interrogation and torture sequences in Rome, Open City are expressionist rather than realist.

Pre-dating the post-Dirty Harry and French Connection boom in Italian police films, Bandits in Milan has a different look and feel to the typical 70s poliziotto, with Lizzani taking an documentary like approach to his subject – a reconstruction of a real heist which turned the center of Millan into a racetrack and unfortunate bystanders into targets.

At the same time, however, Lizzani is careful not to let forget that we are watching a movie, whether the opening freeze frame that shows one of the bandits in flight and then presents his capture by an angry mob, or the later – but chronologically earlier – scene in which the robbers' lookout tries to convince a curious passer by that a commercial is being filmed inside the bank, that it's not being robbed for real.

The film has a curious structure, beginning with ten minutes of little vignettes that, besides introducing Tomas Milian's police chief, give a kaleidoscopic portrait of crime and the city.

Milian, facing the press.

Following an old timer's remarks that the new generation of career criminals have no restraints and no respect, we get the shaking down of a nightclub and a gambling den by a protection racket. Then, in what seems like a dress rehearsal for the later Storie di vita e malavita, we get the recruitment of a naïve young woman, played by Margaret Lee, into prostititution and her eventual murder at the hands of her pimp.

Robber, terrorist or ultra?

Finally, as one of the robbers is interrogated by Inspector Basevi, the main story begins to unfold via his confession.

Basevi learns that the Turin-based gang were behind the robbery of three Milan banks in the space of half an hour the previous year, hitting the first one and making sure that the alarm is triggered to draw police cars there as they move on to the second, repeat the trick there and then go on to the third.

Volonte looking for inspiration

The mastermind behind the gang, who have made some 17 bank robberies over the preceding few years is Cavallero, played by Gian Maria Volonte. A keen strategist who leaves nothing to chance and enjoys the thrill of robbery as much as the money it brings, he's charismatic, megalomaniac and has a liking for existentialist literature and military history.

Cavallero has also seen to it that the gang have set themselves up a legitimate business as a front, complete with a secretary, whom he amusing tells not to wear short skirts and, more practically, to never have her boyfriend around the office. He also keeps a balance sheet of the profits and losses from each robbery, all the way down to noting the amount of ammunition fired and the cost per bullet.

Gratuitous picture of Margaret Lee

With the other long-term members of the gang, played by reliable hands like Don Backy and Peter Martell, equally professional but less extraordinary, the other main focus of attention is newcomer Tuccio, played by a fresh-faced Ray Lovelock.

A promising footballer who works in Cavallero's father's garage, Tuccio happens upon a stash of hidden guns and, having proven to Cavallero that he can be trusted, is invited to train with the gang and join them for their next job. (When he's learning to shoot, Cavellero still keeps track of the ammunition used.)

Let's go to work...

Finally, the day of the heist comes, along with the introduction of the various unfortunates whose lives are about to fatally intersect with the bandits. The job itself comes off fine, with the gang having earlier timed the traffic lights and noted that they would also have a clean getaway, but the police pursuit proves unexpectedly dogged. This causes Cavallero to start deliberately shooting at passing traffic and people in the hope of forcing the police to give up the chase.

It doesn't work...

Bandits in Milan has so many strong points, including quality performances; powerful, hard-hitting action sequences; believable characters; naturalistic dialogue (in which a number of distinctively Turinese idioms are used for extra veracity) and a somewhat open ending, that it is hard to actually find much to criticise.

One potential weakness is that Milian plays his role straight and as such is perhaps less interesting and engaging than in the likes of Almost Human and Brothers Till We Die where he is more over-the-top. Likewise, Lee's role amounts to only two or minutes screentime.

If Milian and Lee's fans may be disappointed, those of Volonte will be delighted. Compare his character and performance here to those in, say, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion or Io ho paura, and you cannot but be impressed with his ability to inhabit radically different roles – a self-satisfied, superior, fascistic police chief and an anxious, increasingly paranoid cop assigned as bodyguard to a judge investigating terrorism – and the sheer commitment he brought to them.

More mediation

Another thing I wasn't entirely sure about was the extra-diegetic music. It's fine in itself, but at times threatens to expose a split between the genre and documentary aspects of the film by providing additional commentary and emotional cues which I felt were somewhat superfluous given the power of the writing, performances and direction. This said, I must also having similar feelings towards a number of neo-realist films, so it may just be that I don't quite get this melodramatic aspect of wider Italian culture as it applies there and here. Or, rather, I 'get' it at an intellectual level, understanding how musical cues helped the Italian audience make sense of the film by providing emotional cues, but just cannot have this same response myself in the case of more realistic films.

Taken as a whole, however, Bandits in Milan deserves to be much better known and acknowledged as one of the great heist movies in the same breath as the likes of The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, The Killing, Reservoir Dogs and Heat. It is that good.

Friday 27 June 2008

002 operazione Luna / 002 Operation Moon / Dos cosmonautas a la fuerza

In 1965 at least nine Franco and Ciccio films were released, each following the same formula: take some popular success of the time, whether A Fistful of Dollars, Thunderball or The Leopard, and place the two loveable rogues in its world to wreak havoc.

The target here, as indicated by the title, is also Bondian, loosely following on from the previous year's 002 agenti segretissimi, also directed by Lucio Fulci.

A Soviet space mission goes wrong, leaving the two Cosmonauts onboard Popov I lost in space and the party with a potential public relations disaster on their hands. Meanwhile Franco and Ciccio are arrested after a bungled robbery. A Soviet agent in Rome, whose cover is a beauty parlour and gym catering to the wives of Italy's ruling elite, sees Franco and Ciccio's picture in the newspaper and realises they are the spitting images of the Cosmonauts. Accordingly our two heroes are kidnapped, taken to Moscow and, after some tests, sent into space on Popov II. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you see it, they then return to earth. The complication is that they've got to impersonate the Cosmonauts. For the military and media this isn't such a problem: they just have to sit there and keep their mouths shut. But when the two men's wives arrive and wonder why their husbands are speaking Italian rather than Russian it's a different matter. Then unexpectedly Popov I reappears and returns to earth, complete with the real Cosmonauts...

The cosmonauts

The real Franco and Ciccio, not lost in space but loose?

Who is who?

Nine films is a figure that gives some idea of Franco and Ciccio's popularity with a sector of the Italian public and of the qualities they required of their collaborators, most obviously a fast, efficient way of working. This also, however, helps to explain why Franco and Ciccio were a two-edged sword for the filmmaker, especially a more aspirational one like Fulci.

Working with / for them ensured that you would have plenty of work. But also imposed limitations on what you could do creatively and make it unlikely that intellectuals and taste makers would recognise your efforts in any case: To most of them it was probably just another Franco and Ciccio film, for which criticism and comment, except perhaps of the culture underlying their popularity, was essentially irrelevant.


Presumably not Vatican approved, though to link this with Fulci's personal biography would also be a step too far one thinks

As such, the filmmakers achievements here, modest though they may be, probably went unnoticed. Three things spring to mind.

First, a good proportion of the film's dialogue is in Russian, much of it subtitled into Italian. Given Italy's dubbing culture and the likelihood of the typical Franco and Ciccio fan not being that for the subtitled foreign art film, it comes across as a bold move that perhaps ran the risk of alienating the audience somewhat.

Second, that the documentary-style opening sequence, which sees the two cosmonauts who look exactly like Franco and Ciccio launched into space, convices, as do the two comedians straight performances: they may look like Franco and Ciccio, but are curiously serious, silent and stoic.

Third, a 360 degree pan around a lock-up full of electronics, that starts with (the 'real') Franco and Ciccio but then circles round to include them within the camera's independent vision, in a manner perhaps not too removed from the kind of camera consciousness Pasolini talked about in his discussions of The Cinema of Poetry, making us aware of its independent presence while also indicating something of the significance which televisions, refrigerators and radios had over the film's public at the time. (Later on, once they are in space, TV and radio form the basis for a number of Franco and Ciccio's gags as well.)

Not a great film by any means, but one that has its moments of interest.

Thursday 26 June 2008

Das Siebente Opfer / The Racetrack Murders

The world of horseracing was one which Edgar Wallace knew well, but not as well as he might like, given that part of the impetus for his extraordinary workrate stemmed from his chronic inability to back enough winners. He also however used his knowledge of the subject to good effect by using it as a backdrop to a number of his thrillers, including Never Back Losers and Thank Evans.

Wallace's son Bryan Edgar Wallace also used racing themes and settings on occasion, as with this krimi based on his novel Murder is Not Enough, produced by Artur Brauner's CCC and released in 1964; as a rule of thumb a CCC krimi will be a Wallace junior adaptation, featuring him in the opening credits and an 'authentic' Rialto krimis a Wallace senior adaptation, featuring his supposed voice, in English or German, over the credits.

Bryan Edgar Walace's customary appearance

The story opens on a country estate. Lord John Mant's horse, Satan, is the hot favourite for the Derby. It soon becomes clear, however, that someone does not want Satan to compete, with two shady characters planting a snake in the horse's path, causing his to throw the jockey, breaking his neck.


It seems like a terrible accident, but not enough for Lord Mant and his associates to really get bothered about, with their garden party going ahead as planned – “Why cancel it, just because some wretched jockey breaks his neck; it's outrageous,” as Lady Jenny remarks. Then one of the bandsmen, who had earlier indicated his need to talk to Lord John about an important matter, is shot dead.

Inspector Bradley is soon on the case, bringing all of the Many family and their servants, as the suspects in the case, into the drawing room, followed by the arrival of Peter Brooks, a painter who is a friend of Lord Mant's son.

As with his fathers' work, Bryan soon gives us a number of intersecting stories and conspiracies to work through: in addition to a successions of murders we have a missing will; a coveted painting of the Madonna worth £20,000; further attempts at taking the racehorse out of commission via doping; a noble scion with a mass of IOU's needing paid off to the shady figure who has acquired them, and an unidentified man wearing black gloves and puffing on cigars who is pulling the strings on at least some of these crimes.

The horse's name provides a running gag throughout the film, as the various genteel English country types, including the parish vicar, keep discussing Satan, his wellbeing and prospects, all the way to the final race – by which time several more characters have dropped out of the running in rather giallo-like subjective camera murder set pieces – where assorted punters amusingly chant “Satan, Satan” like members of some black metal band or their fans.

Franz Josef Gottlieb's direction is impressive even in the less than pristine version under review, with elegant camera movements and arresting expressionistic compositions, placing the camera at low and canted angles, with every shot beautifully lit and lensed by cinematographer Richard Angst.

Expressionist atmospheres and distortions

Whether on account of being of more contemporary vintage or the progressive tendencies of producer Artur Brauner, who had himself made one of the first West German films to deal with the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust and who was also financing the so-called “risky wave” of non-genre films around this time from the proceeds of these krimis, The Racetrack Murders feels more class-conscious than many krimis.

In addition to the boozy Lady Jane's comments – she continues by remarking of the dead bandsman that “this is going too far: generally speaking things of this kind only happen among the working classes” – we also get Lord Mant accidentally-cum-deliberately mistakenly referring to Inspector Bradley as a sergeant until corrected, and thereafter expressing a clear annoyance at the Inspector's lack of deference and respect:

“In view of the circumstances I suspect every one of your guests”

“You're overreaching your professional duties Inspector”

“That, My Lord, is a purely personal point of view”

Indeed, just about all the characters are reduced to the same base level, more reminiscent of later gialli: regardless of their social origins and current positions they are out for what they can get, including the minister of religion, with this being a point which giallo fans may also wish to pay closer attention to.

There are also some untrustworthy foreigners, like the Italian jockey Giuseppe Ranova and an Oriental coded moll type, though in common with some of the other working-class characters they tend to minor rather than major villains.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

Critics, Pirates, Creators and Consumers

Or, some random thoughts inspired by a couple of film festival panels I have attended over the past couple of days....

Every year the Edinburgh International Film Festival does a number of these panel events. By their very nature they can be a bit hit and miss, depending strongly on the quality of the panelists, the moderator and the questions from the audience.

This year I attended three panels, two of which – film criticism in the age of the internet and the notion of postive piracy – I feel are worth writing about here; I won't mention the third by name, but merely indicate that it didn't add terribly much to my understanding of the debates around its subject, though this could be because I'm arrogant or knowledgeable enough (take your pick) to feel that I really didn't need anyone else to be talking about its particular subject at the level the panelists did.

Both criticism and piracy are issues that I am closely involved in anyway: as regular readers will know I write reviews of films that I would consider veer in the direction of criticism a lot of the time, and that these are often of rather obscure genre films that I download from file sharing sites or exchange with other fans because they are more often than not unavailable by other means.

As such, I can't claim to be a neutral party: I have an agenda. I want to see the overthrowing of the existing power structures within cinema, so that anyone can see any film they are interested in, no matter whether it is art or trash; where it comes from; how old it is; with prejudice as to its aesthetics and politics, and ideally be able to find intelligent commentary on that film that helps make sense of and appreciate what it is doing, with the emergence of a discursive community around it.

The thing that emerged from the internet criticism panel was how far we've come and how far we've still got to go on this. Newspaper critics, in the UK at least, still tend to come from the same narrow backgrounds, still tend to keep a distance from film theory – sometimes wisely, it must be said – and seem to a degree to be beholden to two pressures that work against their writing about the sort of film I'm interested in.

The first of these is the power of the majors, that if a blockbuster is the film of the week they must give it pride of place in a column whether or not it merits it or if much can actually be written about the film itself. The second is the enduring power of the art / popular cinema divide, by which certain films are automatically deemed worth writing about or not worth writing about and of praise or condemnation.

With this, I found myself thinking back to some old issues of the Monthly Film Bulletin from the 1960s and 1970s I was reading recently: The MFB had the policy of reviewing every single film given a theatrical release in the UK, such that the latest from Bergman or whoever would sit alongside a dubbed spaghetti western or Eurohorror. But the reviews were divided into two classes: those films deemed to be of interest to the magazine's readers, which got more throughgoing analysis, and those of everything else, which tended to amount to three or five lines of summary, often dismissive, commentary after the plot synopsis. Sight and Sound, which ran parallel to the MFB for a number of years and now continues its remit of reviewing everything, though not with the same overt split, still tends to feature reviews of varying length and implicit assumptions of value.

Now, of course some reviews are always going to be longer than others, with some films warranting more commentary than others. But the thing that really stuck me, thinking about it, is how the web frees us from word / space limits, and how different things can be if we approach even the least film with a view to finding something more to say about it beyond a summary dismissal: what happens if we actually have to try to work through, for each and every film, what it does specifically as a unique object?

I can't say I live up to this ideal myself, and in truth I don't think many of us could, but it seems something to aspire towards...

A more difficult balance emerged as that between breadth and depth. All of the critics commented on the value added by the professional critic with the ability and willingness to go deeper than the fan who simply says that he or she liked or disliked something. Yet the question of breadth and depth remained at the back of my mind: it's all very well to say this, but isn't the critic who knows about the 'right' sorts of film, those which are either commercially or culturally valued, still perpetuating the same system so long as he or she is not being exposed to? Likewise, if the critic only sees a relatively narrow range of cinema – and I am not suggesting that they all necessarily do, but the Time Out panelists' comments about having a panel of reviewers, with certain ones who would be assigned to go see and review particular types of film – then how can they really educate their audience? At what point do we need the outsider's view, as when the the critic confronts a cinema that they have little or no knowledge of? How far does familiarity or unfamiliarity breed contempt? The classic kung fu fan should see some contemporary Iranian cinema, and vice versa, but how people actually many do?

The positive piracy panel, meanwhile, was interesting for the very admission that its title – which itself is of course problematic, in that we should really be debating and defining exactly what piracy is, whether it is anything beyond armed robbery at sea – made. Piracy is not, as the somewhat on-the-spot spokesperson for the Federation Against Copyright Theft often found himself trying in vain to get around, a cut and dry situation. What is positive for one individual or group, namely the fan who wishes to gain exposure to a wider range of cinema, is bad for another, namely the big players who really do not want us to become aware of any alternatives beyond the narrow range they are offering. To their credit, however, the other three panelists, independent horror filmmaker Alex Orr, an internet journalist, and a writer and programmer for the ICA, who expressed the desire that more of the kind of films the ICA showed were available to a wider audience, each understood the positive side of new avenues for distribution. They understood that, while the blockbusters and multiplexes are still here, there is the emergence of new sensibilities and understandings amongst filmmakers and of new audiences and communities who are quite simply bypassing the increasingly outmoded powers that be. Why is it okay for manufacturers to exploit freedom of the marketplace to move manufacturing wherever costs are cheapest, often devastating communities in the process – externalitie they do not need to worry about – yet bad when consumers exploit the same freedoms the internet gives them?

The idea of punk rock and DIY came up repeatedly within the panel. The FACT representative and the chair seemed to be invoking it solely in terms of a route in, that sooner or later the artist would want to work with the major label / studio and to make the big money. Orr, however, seemed to grasp the fundamental issue here: there is art and there is commerce and, if not necessarily incompatible, they are not necessarily compatible either. Too many artists have been screwed over buy the industry to believe otherwise.

The way forward, one has to conclude, is punk, is DIY, is fans ripping films and doing their own subtitles and reconstructions, but inspired more by the likes of Roberto Rossellini (as a name who came up in the discussion, along with the aesthetics of neo-realism, and, though none of the panelists mentioned this, who was also an independent producer in his own right) and ideologically pure post-punks like Fugazi:

“What could a businessman ever want more / Than to see us sucking on his store / We owe you nothing” or, to quote their song Cassavetes, about the founding father of independent American cinema, “If it's not for sale you can't buy it”

But, we might add, you may well be able to download it, or trade it with another in your particular fan producer-consumer community...

Tuesday 24 June 2008

I gialli di edgar wallace 3

Just a poster I found on Ebay, dated as 1960 and suggesting that the British Edgar Wallace hour-long TV films made at Merton Park circulated on Italian screens as double-bills under an Edgar Wallace / giallo label.

The directors of this particular pairing include Clive Donner, the casts Harry H. Corbett and Hazel Court.

Cattivi pensieri / Evil Thoughts / Who Mislaid My Wife?

Returning home one night after his flight to New York is postponed due to fog, lawyer Mario Marani (Ugo Tognazzi) finds his wife Francesca (Edwige Fenech) asleep and someone – a man – hiding in a closet.

This spurs Mario to imagine his wife having all manner of affairs with their friends and associates – if, that is, they are all in fact Mario's imaginings. For while some of the scenarios have a clear fantasy element, as when Jean-Luc Retrosi (Luc Merenda) goes outside into the snow on a skiing trip to kill the bear that had been watching their lovemaking from outside the cabin and returns moments later with its pelt, some of the others are more realistic / plausible in their content and / or form, eschewing more obvious fantasy sequence techniques of soft focus, dreamlike slow motion and so on, and featuring abrupt cuts from one state / scene to another.

Note the surrealist figures in the painting

Note the dark / light contrasts and boundary between Mario and Francesca

Double images of duplicity?

It's these, along with some of Cattivi pensieri's other intertextual reference points that are most interesting from a non-vernacular perspective.

Three films spring to mind: The Rules of the Game, La Bete and Belle de jour. In one scene, the Marani's and their circle gather for some hunting on a country estate, leading to the blasting away of all manner of wildlife and a gag in which one of the beaters thinks they are going to shoot him and collapses in faint as the shotguns ring out, recalling the accidental shooting in Renoir's film.

The Rules of the Game

In the aforementioned snow / bear sequence, Fenech's character puts her hands to her face like Sirpa Lane's character in Borowcyzk's film on seeing the titular beast. Initially it appears a coincidence, a case of reading too much in, but then later she and a different male acquaintance are pictured watching two horses mate, recalling the opening of Borowczyk's film, which leads them into a roll in the hay of their own.

La Bete

It is the aura of Belle de jour that permeates the dream sequences that is perhaps the most significant, however. In his book Cinema 2, Gilles Deleuze proposes the notion of the “crystal image,” a circuit of real and the virtual images constantly chasing after one another until it becomes impossible for the audience to distinguish between two incompossible alternatives. Thus, at the end of Belle de jour – in which a skiing trip is also featured – Severin's husband is either wheelchair bound or not, but there is nothing obvious in the presentation of the images that enables us to identify one state as true and the other as false.

I would argue that something similar, albeit less consistent and coherent, can be said about some of Cattivi pensieri's sequences, at least if we bracket the implications of the title and the neat – if beautifully ironic and revealing – ending.

Cattivi pensieri

Then again, it could also be countered that “if men define situations as real” a – i.e that Francesca is sleeping around – “then they are real in their consequences” – i.e. Franco's suspicion and cruelty.

Distinctive architecture in a popular film, once more.

Again the distinction between modernist art cinema and popular cinema emerges as one of degree rather than absolute divisions. (Another popular Italian film that might be worth considering in terms of its mixture of Deleuzean movement- and time-image concepts if anyone is interested in pursuing the topic further is Castellari's Keoma, particularly those fascinating scenes in which the adult Keoma gazes upon himself as a child.)

The same perhaps applies to some of the worse aspects of the “evil thoughts” regarding his wife: if they are Mario's fantasies, then they reveal just how warped his imagination can be and, by extension, implicate the male viewer who ltakes pleasure in them – not that this is a difficult thing when they feature Fenech, and plenty of her, at the pinnacle of her beauty.

Fenech dominating the male gaze?

And this, of course, is the main attraction for those who care nothing for attempting to apply theory to the Italian sex comedy or raise occasional examples of it like this out of the generic mass, and who would argue that any such attempts are misguided...

Monday 23 June 2008

Making connections

In the opening chapter – or scene, if you prefer – of Harry Grey's pseudonymous memoirs The Hoods, the five friends, Noodles, Maxie, Cockeye, Patsy and Donny are in school. Cockeye is reading a pulp western about the exploits of the James Gang, and fantasises about going out west, becoming a cowboy and joining them. He does not realise that the gang are dead and the wild west is no more until Noodles tells him.

It's an opening that I think helps explain why Leone became obsessed with bringing Grey's story to the screen, even if his own Once Upon a Time in America does not feature this scene.

It is all about the end of the “real” west and the printing of the Fordian “legend;” the shift from a rural to an urban environment; the gangster supplanting the cowboy as the idealised popular cultural figure of the man with a gun living and dying by a code; the replacement of the horse with the motor car; the emergence of the movies as a way in which American mythologies circulated. Thus, as Grey's memoirs continue, we get the blending of fact and fiction, as his memories of the gangster life become intermingled with the idioms of pulp crime writing and Hollywood gangster films.

In the period it took Leone to bring the novel to the screen he reluctantly directed the Mexican-revolution set Duck You Sucker. Juan's obsession with robbing the bank at Mesa Verde there mirrors Maxie's obsession with robbing the Federal Reserve in The Hoods.

The theme of betrayal also runs through both works, with Sean/John's memories of being betrayed by his colleague in the IRA and his eventual questioning of what he has done to Juan in using him for the revolution, along with Noodles' betrayal of his friends by informing the police on them. Grey novel, however, obviously does not feature the double-betrayal structure of Leone's film, where Maxie is presented as the brains behind the operation and Noodles, who has thought himself to be the betrayer for some 30 odd years, discovers himself to be the betrayed.

This double-betrayal aspect meanwhile also perhaps helps make somewhat akin to Leone's version of the Borges story The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, itself with an Irish setting, which also formed the basis for Bertolucci's more personalised take on it in The Spider's Stratagem, in which the young hero discovers the truth behind his father's reputation as an anti-fascist hero.

Saturday 21 June 2008

Alibi perfetto / Circle of Fear

Given that this 1992 thriller is directed by the talented Aldo Lado yet struggles to achieve anything like the success of his previous work within the same broad territory, it could be taken as an exemplar of the problems facing Italian filmmakers at the time. Quite simply, audience interest had went elsewhere and the filmmakers were unsure how to respond.

Though Lado had certainly drawn from The Last House on the Left when making Late Night Trains some 15 or so years earlier, he had also succeeded in crafting something which was distinctively situated within its own national and historical contexts.

This is one of the things which is most lacking here, with there being no sense of the events occuring within any definable – or well defined – framework. Rather, it feels more like Lado and his collaborators, including regular Argento writing partner Franco Ferrini, simply cobbled together elements from traditional Italian giallo and poliziotto entries and adding in some Hong Kong “heroic bloodshed” style action and imagery along with The Silence of the Lambs Hollywood serial killer-isms, without much rhyme or reason or, more importantly, effect.

The credits begin with a giallo image

Before we enter into Deadly China Dolls / Heroic Bloodshed territory

Though the killer is soon back to business

The story starts off as confusingly as it means to continue, with the arrival of various parties at a Chinese restaurant. Before long an uncomfortably directed shoot out occurs, by way of which we learn that cops Tony and Lisa are intent on busting gangster Mancini with the consignment of heroin he was picking up. Though the cops sieze the heroin and money, Mancini escapes.

Lisa and her boss

Back at the station, their boss berates them for acting without orders, pointing out that it was only supposed to be a surveillance and evidence gathering exercise: “I want my best agents to behave like cops, not Rambo rip-offs.”

Later that evening, Tony and Lisa comiserate with some lovemaking: they are partners off the job as well as on it, with this also serving to amusingly highlight the unspoken subtext of many a male-male buddy cop film of similar vintage.

Around about this point we also get some curious scenes of a dangerous madwoman, the Countess, in an asylum and of another looking around the outside of and photographing a house.

The first connection is made when Tony and the latter woman, his soon to be ex- in more ways than one Elvi, visit the courthouse to finalise their divorce proceedings. In the parking lot they are shot by two gunmen, killing Elvi and leaving Tony in a coma, from which he soon recovers. (There is a short black and white flashback here, which led me to briefly hope that the film might be about to enter into Short Night of Glass Dolls territory.)

Tony's immediate feeling is that Mancini was behind the hit, but this does not square with the unprofessionalism of the assassins in targeting Elvi first and leaving him alive. The plot thus thickens further as he receives the photographs Elvi took of the house, revealing a shadowy figure at a window when blown up, and then investigates the house, which used to belong to the countess, finding a Deep Red-style mummified body, with its head in the oven.

Is this the face of the killer at the window?

Initially it is believed to be the Countess's son, Marco, but the forensic examination reveals that the victim is female and died a violent death. Meanwhile, the murder of a prostitute indicates that a serial killer, long thought dead or inactive, has returned...

The dialogue is pretty awful, encompassing just about every cop movie cliché one could imagine and again lacking the subtleties of earlier films, as with the foreshadowing throwaway references to vampires in Short Night of the Glass Dolls: “Police: Get Your Hands Up. Don't even think about it!”

Giallo technology, circa 1990

The leads are also distinctly C-level, although the actress playing Lisa is certainly easy on the eyes. As such, the old familiar faces among the supporting players – Philippe Leroy as the chief, Bobby Rhodes as the pathologist – are welcome as ever, while Romano Mussolini's jazzy score provides a pleasant aural backdrop though at times also veers into more routine 80s sax and synth territory.

Tony and the Countess

Lado doesn't give the impression of being a 'natural' action director. He tries, but the shoot outs are devoid of excitement, with the panning and scanning making it more difficult to work out the spatial relationships between the characters. He does, however, manage a few moments that recall past glories, such as the mirrored reflections when the Countess is interrogated Hannibal Lektor style, suggestive of the way in which the characters are haunted by one another's presences and pasts.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Il Sesso della strega / The Sex of the Witch / The Evil Eye

This 1973 giallo starts of as one of those Agatha Christia all'italiana types in presenting a family of suspects gathering for their patriarch's death, swiftly followed by the funeral and the reading of the will and a murder any one of them had motive and opportunity to commit.

What immediately sets the film apart from its English counterpart, besides the too sunny Italian locales doubling for a Worcestershire estate, are the sleaze quotient and contemporary setting – linked inasmuch as the youngsters are more likely to engage in a drugged out happening or orgy than the genteel cocktail parties of their parents or grandparents generations – and the distinct possibility that there may be a supernatural element to the crime(s).

The filmmakers successfully draw us in to their demi-monde at the outset, juxtaposing Sir Thomas Hilton's death-bed thoughts, that his family must end before its name is shamed any further, with two of his servants making love in the family crypt.

Fellini would be jealous...

The funeral

And the reading of the will

A nightclub sequence sees the director break out the weird lenses and colour filters

To achieve his end, Sir Thomas has crafted his will so as to set the family members against one another. Apart from the disinherited Evelyn, each will inherit an equal share of the fortune on turning 30, along with his personal secretary and lover Simon. But if any should die before then their portion is to be divided up amongst the survivors...

After the 29 years and 11 months old Johnny gets bludgeoned to death following some particularly heavy debauchery, the Inspector is called in to see if anyone can tell him anything about the night in question. Good luck to him in solving the case, as he'll very definitely need it...

Recalling the likes of The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave, The Red Queen Kills Seven Times – sharing a key character called Evelyn with both – and The Weekend Murders at times, this is an enjoyable slice of sleaze trash that doesn't take itself too seriously, with writer-director Angelo Panaccio – also coincidentally responsible for Holocaust 2, along with the likes of Naked Exorcism and Porno Exotic Western – targetting the low-hanging fruit by way of the requisite party sequence, lesbian and heterosexual softcore numbers and stalk-and-slash set pieces. In a moment of inspiration there are, however, significantly no black gloves to be seen.

A random breast self-examination

Medieval weaponry is surprisingly common in the giallo

A nice little found composition

The lesbians

And some yellow curtains

The cast is populated by familiar B-movie names of the period, including Donal O'Brien as the inspector and Gianni Dei, Frank Garofalo and Camille Keaton as secretary, servant and nipote respectively. Daniele Patucchi provides a reasonable effective, insistent harpsichord based score, with one repeated doleful progressions coincidentally slightly remiscent of Morricone's work on The Stendhal Syndrome. The cinematography, production design and costumes are bright and colourful in that 70s way, further adding to the lurid comic-book feel.

Cinema Nocturna Review: