Saturday 28 February 2009

Melltoron / Vocoder / whatever

So, I am watching The Beyond for the howeverthmany time, and thinking about the soundtrack, with the and "you will live in" chorus, which predates the vocoder-ed paura theme in Tenebre, but are there any instances of this treatment which are before both of them in the Italian cinema?

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Robert Quarry RIP

Another cult great gone; Count Yorga: Vampire and its sequel are two of the best modern day vampire films, and Quarry makes a nice foil for Vincent Price in the Dr Phibes sequel :-(

Nice piece over on Cinemafantastique Online:

Sotto il vestito niente / Nothing Underneath

After he receives the sensation that his sister Jessie, an up and coming Milan based model, is in some sort of danger, Yellowstone Park ranger Bob Crane catches the first flight to the city. Finding Jessie missing, he contacts the authorities, who are understandably nonplussed by his (non-)explanation of why he is there, but nevertheless soon come to agree that something must be up as two other models turn up dead in short order...

Nothing Underneath – the Italian title, translating as nothing underneath the clothes is at once simpler and more suggestive – is a classic example of the style-driven, post-Tenebre giallo that time has not yet been kind to.

More than being less distanced style wise than such 70s fashion world counterparts as The Crimes of the Black Cat and Strip Nude for Your Killer, it’s also the kind of film whose makers try oh so hard, but unfortunately fail to make style and substance cohere, with a relative surfeit of the former and paucity of the latter.

The area where this is most evident is in the inclusion of the telepathic connection device. It just about works as a means of introducing the characters and their situation, but thereafter is largely dropped with the result that it emerges overall as a crude contrivance which raises more questions than it answers.

Worse, it also encourages negative comparisons with both Argento’s Phenomena – as another grab bag of ideas, albeit more the director’s own rather than ones general to the giallo – and, De Martino’s Extrasensorial, where the theme is central throughout rather than throwaway; perhaps not coincidentally Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini worked on the scripts of both Phenomena and Nothing Underneath, the latter in conjunction with Marco Palma, whose novel it was derived from.

Another point of reference is Inferno, with its juxtaposition of magic – the acousmatic voices of the three mothers, heard and felt but rarely seen – and technology – the trans-Atlantic telephone call between Mark and Rose which is cut off by a (magical?) storm and Mark’s flight from Rome to New York in search of his sister.

At issue in each case is the reality we are dealing with. The other three films establish their distinctive worlds, like but not our own, and make us suspend our disbelief. Here, by contrast, we are presented with two different versions of the same world, rural America and urban Italy, the timeless and the a la mode, where the comparable admixture of the magical and technological – or specifically psychoanalytic – just does not quite work off. It’s less a case of broken mirrors or broken minds, as in Suspiria, Inferno and Don’t Look Now, but broken minds.

I throw Don’t Look Now into the mix here on account of an obvious bit of symbolism for the viewer, if not the protagonist, as the telephone operator responsible for making the connection between the Rockies and Milan in order to save Jessie tellingly spills her red nail polish over the international dialling code details for the city. (Another case of the “it’s not blood, it’s red” formula for distanced giallo violence?)

Other aspects of the film are more successful, making one imagine an alternate, more mundane, version where Bob doesn’t receive some calls from Jessie that he has been expecting, is dissatisfied with the answers he gets from her circle and arrives after a couple of weeks to begin his investigation, as working better throughout.

In particular, the high fashion world, with all its excesses of greed, drugs and opportunistic sex, and its glamour, of that familiar distinction between the glittering surface and the corruption beneath, is well captured, to form a further point of connection via the aforementioned 70s murder a la mode entries all the way back to that founding text of the form, Blood and Black Lace.

Likewise, if the killer’s metonymic black gloves are primarily a throwaway generic signifier, albeit one with some of the usual use-value in terms of denying us the sight of obviously male or female hands, the choice of scissors as a weapon fits better with the fashion context than the more usual knife and also prefigures the maniac’s suitably obsessive collection of cut out scrapbook type images.

The nature of the film’s setting makes it hard to gauge most of the performances. As fashion types, most of these people are here to look good rather than act, with a certain element of vacuity to be expected; indeed female lead Renee Simonsen was a top model of the time.

Much the same can be said of Tom Schanley’s Crane in a different way, insofar as he is playing the country mouse type out of his element in the big city.

Donald Pleasance is very much in collect the paycheck and run mode, though this sense of going through the motions, not quite 100 per cent aware of where he is and on which film he’s actually working is also strangely appropriate to his character, the cliche figure of the old detective whose last case this is.

Note must also made of the finale, which manages to combine the slow-motion crash through glass of Four Flies on Grey Velvet with the more conventionally seen plummet to the death of The Crimes of the Black Cat, Don’t Torture a Duckling, Who Saw Her Die and others.

In sum, decent entertainment for 90 or so minutes, but almost “nothing underneath” by way of substance or subtext to reward repeat viewings.

Antonio Trashorras Goes Giallo With BREED

"Best known as the writer of Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone Spanish film maker Antonio Trashorras is also an increasingly accomplished director in his own right. And with his latest directorial effort Trashorras indulges his love for classic giallo. With Cristina Pons in the lead Dos manos zurdas y un racimo de ojos manchados de gris - amusingly titled simply Breed in English - the film is twenty minutes of surreal, bloody mystery and horror with all the style and smarts that you’d expect. But don’t take my word for it, we’ve got the entire film - English subtitled, no less - in the Twitch Player below the break."

Ricchi, ricchissimi... praticamente in mutande / Don't Play with Tigers

There’s quite a difference between the Italian and English titles for this three part sex comedy anthology directed by Sergio Martino.

The Italian, Ricchi, ricchissimi, practicamente in mutande literally translates as rich, richer, practically in (the) underwear, referring to hotter / colder kind of game and thus providing a more apt analogy for the ‘nearly there’ sexual outcomes of the three stories.

They are framed via the device of a day in the life of a court, where the judge presides over the three cases, each presented via flashback narrated by the male accused, incarnated by Pippo Caruso, Lino Banfi and Renato Pozzetto respectively.

In the first he takes his wife and sons to the beach and builds a beach hut but is then understandably threatened and troubled by the presence of a free-living and loving group of French nudists, led by a rather well-endowed man, who have also decide to set up camp there...

In the second he’s a businessman, the owner of a successful sausage factory, who believes he has attracted the attentions of a German contessa, with all manner of farcical antics ensuing as he thus tries to avoid his own family...

In the third he’s another businessman, the owner of an struggling shipbuilders, who sees salvation in the form of persuading an Arab sheik to commission a yacht. Unfortunately the sheikh takes an undue interest in his wife, wanting her to join his harem as the brunette pearl amongst the existing 12 blond ones as part of the deal.

While the second and third episodes also feature Janet Agren and Edwige Fenech respectively, the latter also being paired with her old giallo colleague George Hilton as the Sheikh, fans of the two actresses may be disappointed the lack of actual T&A on display, all of which is concentrated in the first story and of an equal opportunities nature.

If the filmmakers may be accused of playing on stereotypes, particularly in the third episode, this is offset by their fair-minded skewering of various Italian types, whether the judiciary, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat and the various comic reversals and misidentifications that occur as the narratives are resolved.

Here, we might also consider a skit from the contemporaneous British show The Young Ones, representative of a new comedy that purported to reject the racist and sexist values of its predecessor: in an Arab court, the advisor asks the sheikh if he would like to see the foreign ambassador over the subject of their alleged mandatory cruelty. Yes, replies the sheikh. Which bit of him would you like to see? asks the advisor.

Above all, however, is that it is simply funny - and more specifically essentially harmlessly so.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

I ragazzi del juke-box / The Juke-Box Kids

Unlikely as it may sound, future horror specialist Lucio Fulci made his directorial debut with this musical comedy.

A kind of Italian take on the Elvis film, Rock Around the Clock, It’s Trad Dad, or any number of other films of the time exploiting the rise of the new post-war youth culture, I ragazzi del juke-box / The Juke-Box Kids’ plot is back-of-the-envelope stuff, replete with the usual tropes of inter-generational and familial conflict and a happy ever-after ending.

To wit fuddy-duddy daddy Commander Cesari doesn’t ‘get’ his daughter Giulia’s taste in music, only to be shown the error of his ways and old-fashioned tastes when she and her friends take over the running of his record label and save it from bankruptcy.

While the results may be test your tolerance for Adriano Celentano, Betty Dorys, Fred Buscaglione and other hip young performers of the era at times, they also have many points of interest.

Celentano, doing the Elvis thang

First, Fulci’s direction is pretty stylish, handling the song and dance routines well and combining superimpositions and slow motion in some of the later Vorkapich-style montage sequences.

One of the montages - three images, plus slow motion

Fulci and Buscaglione

Second, he also makes his first cameo appearance, as an A&R or talent scout type who, in characteristic self-deprecating manner, proves more interested in the women than the music; or, alternatively, draws into question the purity of the product, that it is as much ‘sex’ as music which is really being bought and sold here, a point further made by an impromptu striptease routine at an otherwise stage-managed battle of the bands type event.

Third, the cast contains other figures later to play prominent roles the filone cinema, including Elke Sommer, later seen in the likes of Baron Blood and Lisa and the Devil, and Anthony Steffen, here billed as Antonio de Teffe and looking very different from his Django days a decade or so later.

Steffen without stubble

Fourth, there’s even a hint of horror, with one of the kids being nicknamed Dracula, and a song entitled 'I Hate Old Women' with a delightfully manic performance from the singer alongside some suitable odio(us) old women.

Io odio vecchia donne

Or, in sum, enough to make it worthwhile viewing for the dedicated Fulci enthusiast.

Monday 16 February 2009

L'Assassino / The Lady Killer of Rome

This was the first film from Elio Petri, a more mainstream director than those usually covered here, but one who is worthy of consideration as something of a forgotten figure in the Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s.

For, besides making a number of excellent films that managed to combine social comment with entertainment, he also happened to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1970 with Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, a film that also out-grossed The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, released in the same year.

A classic stairwell shot

Like Investigation; A Quiet Place in the Country; We Still Kill the Old Way and Todo Modo, L’Assassino / The Lady Killer of Rome could be broadly termed a giallo. But, again in common with these films, it takes a distinctive approach to its subject matter.

More specifically, it could be understood as a companion piece to Investigation, offering an inversion of the later film’s structure. There the protagonist, the murderer, incarnated by Petri’s later fetish actor Gian-Maria Volonte, is the police commissioner leading the investigation into the crime he himself has committed. Here, the protagonist, incarnated by Marcello Mastroianni, is the man suspected of the murder of his mistress, which itself is never seen, a citizen very much under suspicion on account of his amoral, playboy lifestyle.

Alienated man, dominated by his environment

Mastroianni’s character, Nello Poletti, also happens to be an antique dealer, indebted to and thus dependent on said mistress, suggesting a possible interconnection with Blood and Black Lace beyond the 'assassin' of their Italian titles and the presence in a supporting role of Franco Ressel.

Besides creating a Kafka-esque nightmare out of these situations, where no-one except the powerful is innocent and the law arbitrary and absolute, the other major influence here emerges as Camus, with the various flashbacks – or pseudo-flashbacks – to pivotal incidents in the character’s life, such as his selfish treatment of his mother, older mistress and younger girlfriend, the former seeming to reference The Stranger, and his once failing to intervene to prevent a man’s suicide, a la The Fall.

Both the central performance from Marcello Mastroianni and Petri’s direction are highly impressive, with the actor’s nuanced performance skilfully making us unsure of whether or not he is in fact guilty, and indeed also raising questions of what exactly this word might mean in this particular context, and the director utilising a nice mixture of neo-realist, post-neo-realist and expressionist / expressive images.

A curiously off-centre composition visually repeats the message of the dialogue

Yet, if there is an element of Antonioni’s style in this post-neo-realist aspect of the film, Petri also resists making an anti-giallo in which the mystery – did he or didn’t he do it – would have remained unresolved.

Of particular note is the handling of the aforementioned ‘quasi-flashbacks,’ precisely because they can’t quite be read so clearly as such, having that Rashomon-like quality of being the subjective, interested reconstructions of their originator.

As to the actual resolution, I’ll leave to watch the film for yourself, even if anyone with a knowledge of Petri’s background, work and politics and probably work it out for themselves...

Or, rather, one resolution, for apparently in some territories – including Australia, the subtitled version under review having come from an Australian TV broadcast – the ending was altered to give it a different inflection – an element which raises the wider question of what happens, as is so often the case with Euro-cult films, when the distributor or censors become effective co-authors.

With crisp black and white cinematography courtesy of none other than Carlo di Palma, sharply written dialogue by Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa, and a pleasing jazzy score, The Ladykiller of Rome, well, slays...

Sunday 15 February 2009

Un giallo di Edgar Wallace

Poster for The Dead Eyes of London, as Gli Occhi di Londra or The Eyes of London, and proclaiming it to be an Edgar Wallace giallo:

Saturday 14 February 2009

Westerns all'italiana blog

Anyone who knows their spaghetti westerns will also know who Tom B / Betts is.

Well, he's recently started a blog which is, needless to say, essential for fans of the form:

Friday 13 February 2009

Violence against women?

One site I often visit is, which has a wealth of information and opinion on censorship. As such, the old video nasties of the 1980s often crop up, especially as they are re-released with or without cuts.

This week it was the turn of Fulci's House by the Cemetery, happily now passed uncut. It was the cuts previously made in 2001 that made me wonder:

"Cuts required to two sequences of detailed violence against women (stabs to chest and neck with sharp spike, knife cutting throat), in accordance with BBFC policy on violence, and to take into account recent, successful prosecutions of the uncut version under the Obscene Publications Act 1959."

Now, I don't know about you but violence against women is not something that really comes to the fore when you have a zombie doctor running amok. The New York Ripper, maybe, but Dr Freudstein?

Where was the 'fantasy' aspect, the recognition that it's not real?

What did seem present, however, was a double standard: would violence against men be mentioned in the same way? Probably not, I suspect.

Of course the BBFC is pretty much irrelevant in these days of the internet and region free players anyway - who doesn't already have an uncut import of House by the Cemetery anyways?

Thursday 12 February 2009

Just some posters

In frames, on my walls, badly photographed at an odd angle...

My Dear Killer and Death Occurred Last Night

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Perfume of the Lady in Black

Operazione San Pietro / Operation St. Peter's / Die Abenteuer des Kardinal Braun / Au diable les anges

There's a book of photographs of American skid-row poet Charles Bukowski on a European tour entitled Shakespeare Never Did This, which this 1966 Fulci comedy somehow reminded me of.

Specifically, it might be subtitled Argento Never Did This, in reference to Fulci's great and more widely recognised rival. For, the more one explores the sheer breadth of Fulci's filmography beyond the horror and gialli films for which he would later become best known, the more he emerges as a talented filmmaker able to engage with just about any material

Though Fulci had certainly directed plenty of comedies by this time, including crime capers such as I Ladri, Operazione San Pietro immediately signals its distinctiveness by beginning more or less where they tended to finish, as a gang of robbers bungles a break-in.

Specifically, The Baron, The Captain and Agonia wind up not in the vault as intended, but in a prison cell, occupied by Lando Buzzanca's Napolean. Before the guards can arrive, all four men escape. (Argento would later begin Le Cinque Giornate with a similar escape from gaol, while Agonia is played by Ugo Fangareggi, later Gigi the Loser in Cat o' Nine Tails.)

Encouraging his new colleagues to think big, in line with his name, Napoleone suggests that they head north, to Rome, where one of his friends is currently in 'business'.

They arrive, only to find that this friend is himself in custody while the only other resident of the less than palatial shack, Jean-Claude Brialy's Majella, is too busy with his own work as a gigolo cum swindler to be of much help.

He does, however, suggest the newcomers take a trip to St Peters. While there Napoleone has the idea for an audacious theft: they will take Michaelangelo's Pieta and sell it on the black market.

Incredibly the plan succeeds, at which point things become more complicated. For not only does the Vatican understandably want the statue back, but a group of gangsters whom Cajella has inadvertently become involved with learn of the theft, which the Vatican has kept top-secret, and naturally want the statue for themselves…

Worse, these gangsters are led by legendary US mobster Joe Ventura, incarnated by none other than Edward G. Robinson, whose idea of subtlety is to bring out the machine guns and kill everyone who stands in his way…

The film obviously had a decent budget given its combination of US, French, German and Italian stars, comparatively large-scale set piece chases and stunts – credited to none less than Remy Julienne and his team – and the delightful animated credits sequence atop which plays some suitable irreverent jazz-pop accompanied with scatted vocals.

While it is hard for the non-Italian and / or non-Catholic to quite get all of the religious references, with the various rival orders present – the Jesuits "always have to be first," as a member of another order remarks when they are overtaken – the overall picture that emerges is of Fulci having fun and making some points at the Church's expense, without overstepping the mark into the more full-blown anti-clericalism that would come to the fore around the time of Beatrice Cenci.

Thus, Napoleone seems about to be let off lightly for his crimes by his confessor, who asks him rhetorically who hasn't stolen these days, until he then admits to stealing from the church, and specifically taking the Pieta, as far more serious matters…

There's also the way in which all the statues in St Peters are covered over, with the guide then telling visitors that they can, however, purchase postcards of said statues from the gift shop; the representation of the Vatican and its agents appear to exist as a shadow state within the state, complete with their own presses for publishing wanted posters, channels for efficiently distributing these, and unofficial police forces, used as an alternative to those of the Italian state who remain oblivious to the whole affair throughout; or Cardinal Brown's dubious past and remark at one point that the Church has been going almost two millennia longer than the cosa nostra.

But, in the end it's all in good fun, rendered safe by a touch of the old deus ex machina and a happy end in which no-one really gets hurt and some are even redeemed…

Not that Fulci only targets the church, however, as the sight of a fake blind beggar – born blind, according to his placard – finishing his meal and going back to work, updates the “court of miracles” while also introducing in passing that most famous of Fulci motifs, the ocular.

Edward G Robinson's gangster presents an amusing self-deprecating throwback to his most famous character types. 35 years or more years on and he's still responding to every situation in the same old way. There's also a sense of his being able to “dish it out” but “not take it,” a la Little Caesar, via a neat black-and-white flashback sequence set in the 1930s, in which he suffers a physical beating at the hands of other members of the mob, resulting in a psychological trauma every time the specific conditions preceding it coincide; a combination that also manages to prefigure both the chain whippings of Don't Torture a Duckling and The Beyond and the more general theme of the giallo “primal scene”.

If there is the risk of over-analysing the film, of seeing something Fulci-esque in every little detail – here we might also note the figure of the crucified Christ in a procession, who comes down off his cross to join a chase, as a further precursor of Schweik in The Beyond – this can be countered by a consideration of the more general visual style of the film, in which close-ups are sparsely used and the emphasis is usually placed more on the long and medium shot to better illustrate the expansiveness (expensiveness) of the film.

In other words, it's Fulci again demonstrating that he knew how to adapt his approach to the material and collaborators at hand, and that his later style was a genuinely personal one emerging as he matured as a filmmaker / auteur in his own right. (The question was perhaps whether critics at the time were able to recognise this, that the zoom, the rack focus, the extreme close-up of the eyes and the nailed-down camera in the set piece, represented an actual aesthetic rather than ineptitude or an unsuccessful attempt to copy Argento; to re-iterate, the two filmmakers have very different aesthetics, with one also doubting that Argento would have ever been able to work effectively with the likes of Buzzanca.)

A nice self-reflexive moment occurs when Napoleone returns to find his friends apparently dead, the victims of Ventura and his gunmen. But then it transpires that the men are really just passed out after a rather large meal, and that the blood around their faces is in fact the sauce from their pasta by way of a nice joke at the expense of what initially seemed unconvincing effects work of the sort where someone can be riddled with bullets yet without any holes or red fluid showing…

Away from Fulci’s films, the other key intertexts are The Treasure of San Gennaro, which also featured Fangareggi, and the two German Father Brown films in which the detective priest was played by Heinz Rühmann, and which give the film its German title, by way of a promotion - The Adventures of Cardinal Brown.

A film of considerable charm.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Col cuore in gola / With Heart in Mouth / Dead stop - Le coeur aux lèvres / Deadly Sweet / En cinquième vitesse / I am What I Am

What are the chances: two avant-garde gialli, sharing the same core cast of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Ewa Aulin, being released in the same year?

But if it's inevitable that some comparisons are thus drawn between Death Laid and Egg and With Heart in Mouth, the two films are also distinct enough to also warrant consideration in their own right.

Whereas Questi's film has a small town / rural setting, Brass's is set in swinging London, a location that server to foreground its indebtedness to Blow Up even before we get a photo-shoot turned nude romp scene; a shot of a poster for Antonioni's film, and the actual quotation of the director's words on colour and modern consciousness in relation to The Red Desert.

Then there is the narrative approach taken by the two films. Death Laid an Egg is the more detached, with the viewer being placed on the outside as an observer on the four central characters and their various conspiracies with and against one another. With Heart in Mouth is more conventional, with the viewer being placed with Trintignant's protagonist, Bernard, as he investigates a murder-mystery.

This mystery is also conventionally embodied in the person of a woman, namely Aulin's character, Jane Burroughs. We are first introduced to her, her half-brother Jerome and their (step-)mother in the pre-credits sequence as they identify Jane’s father, the apparent victim of a hit-and-run.

The narrative ‘proper’ starts later, as Bernard and Jane encounter one another in a nightclub, following which Bernard discovers the body of its owner, Mr Prescott and Jane, who proclaims her innocence of the crime.

Doing the heroic cum fall guy thing, Bernard rescues Jane from Prescott’s men and thus finds himself in turn pursued by them– including a cigar-chomping dwarf and a guy with a penchant for Nazi uniforms – and generally wondering what he has gotten himself into…

So too might the viewer, as Brass uses a dazzling array of techniques including ultra-rapid fire montage editing; multiple split screens; seemingly random shifts from colour to black and white; incorporation of newsreel and documentary footage, the latter showcasing a wide gamut of London culture, subculture and counterculture of the time; pop-art graphics and comic book intertitles (some drawn by Guido Crepax); colour filters; mirror-based compositions; extreme spaghetti western style close-ups; Godardian jump cuts; quotations from Lao Tse and Mao; frames within frames; accelerated motion; self-referential remarks from Bernard/Trintignant about being an actor, and just about anything else you care to think of.

Unfortunately it’s also a case of less is more when compared to Death Laid an Egg. Though Questi’s film also indulged in some of the above, most notably through co-author Franco Arcalli’s jarring editing, the general impression one got there was of something which had actually been thought through, where form and content were intertwined in a chiasmatic, poetic manner.

Here, by contrast, it seems like Brass has simply opted to throw everything he can at the screen in the hope that some of it sticks.

Undoubtedly some of it does and the results are always interesting to look at, if ultimately something approaching “a tale of sound and fury, told by a madman, signifying nothing.”

Still, Brass’s enthusiasm, energy and courage are to be commended, along with his admirable lack of pretense, that sense that he isn’t taking it too seriously and that it would thus be wrong for the critic to do so.

But, again, Death Laid an Egg proves the more successful film here. To invoke some other filmmakers – and ones who obviously influenced the directors – it is as if Brass is doing black comedy via Godard, with the results feeling somewhat forced, whereas Questi and Arcalli are doing comparable grotesqueries via Bunuel, with the results more natural(istic).

And then there is the music: whereas Questi and Arcalli’s film has a suitably avant-garde score by Bruno Maderna, Brass opts for jazz rock with Hammond organ freakouts, generally deployed in a relatively unironic way.

Not that in itself the music is bad, being by none other than Armando Trovajoli. Nevertheless, that he is the father of Italian film music rather than an out-and-out modernist composer again suggests a relative willingness to compromise, even if a precedent here could also be discerned by comparing the unsettling sounds of Giovanni Fusco on Antonioni’s The Red Desert with the rather more audience and market-friendly ones of Herbie Hancock and The Yardbirds on Blow Up.

Still, it’s all good music, if we want to invoke the only distinction that arguably matters…

In sum, a frustrating yet rewarding experience that, alas, isn’t quite as rewarding as its closest counterpart but which can still be recommended to anyone still uncertain of whether the giallo film could be art.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Diva Futura

This is the kind of film for which the epithet 'interesting,' one I otherwise overuse, is made.

Purportedly written and directed by La Cicciolina – and given the amateurishness of the latter in particular, with a severe overuse of zooms in and out, I see no reason to doubt this – its title refers to the porn company founded by Cicciolina and others in the mid 80s, whose manifesto is here presented as pro-sex, pro-environment, anti-aids (though it would be hard to be pro-aids, even if some French post-structualist philosophers no doubt managed it), anti-war and generally right-on.

Cicciolina herself does not appear, except as a poster on the wall of the Diva Futura offices, though given the presence of Moana Pozzi, her younger sister 'Baby' Pozzi, New Ramba (whose top half resembles a female Rambo even if below the waist she is bare in a make love not war way, confirmed by her subsequent interventions) and other Italian porn icons of the period, the significance of this this questionable, in an absence = presence way, fuck you Derrida, way.

The (anti-)narratives take the form of a) various routines by the Pozzis and company, which are noteworthy for being something of throwback to such 70s softcore films as Emanuelle's Porno Nights in their avoidance of hardcore, and b) the conflict between the women of Diva Futura and assorted representatives of patriarchal authority, again notable for being resolved in a distinctly softcore way.

As far a I could work out – here hampered by being able to understand the visuals, less so the Italian dialogue – the overall result is something akin to these Bruno Mattei and Joe D'amato Black Emanuelle mondo-esque entries, but more politicised, as foregrounded by a use a condom / don't get aids routine whose pro-sex message was hard to reconcile with official Catholic abstinence if not-heterosexual / non contraceptive use.

The sexual limits of the piece were also, also however, clear, in terms of no actual lesbianism - i.e. not for the delectation of the heterosexual male viewer - or gay activity.

Radley Metger / Henry Paris still has the edge...

Svegliati e Uccidi / Wake Up and Die

During the 1960s and 1970s Carlo Lizzani made a number of interesting genre films marked by a combination of solid entertainment, social comment and commitment, a logical extension of earlier neo-realist styled works such as Achtung Banditi and Cronaca di poveri amanti into the prime years of the filone cinema.

While preceded by Il Gobbo, about Rome resistance fighter and latterly bandit Alvaro Concenza, Svegliati e Uccidi - closer to Wake Up and Kill, rather than Wake Up and Die in English translation- marks an important step in the evolution of Lizzani's crime cinema, in engaging with contemporary Italian gangsterism rather than looking back to the 1940s.

The equivalent to Concenza here is petty criminal turned public enemy number one Luciano Lutring (Robert Hoffmann), another real-life bandit, Milanese rather than Roman, who became a respected writer and painter after his release from prison.

Lutring - whose name was also sufficiently well-known to be an alternative homonymous title for the film in Italy - is a complex character with obvious personal issues. First seeking to impress night-club singer Yvonne (Lisa Gastoni), whom he soon marries, he anaesthetises himself with drink and counters his feelings of inadequacy by carrying a machine gun he hardly knows how to use.

As an impulsive amateur rather than a professional, he emerges as something of the polar opposite of his counterpart in Bandits in Milan, Pierro Cavallero, who treats crime as a rational business like any other.

While Robert Hoffman is entirely satisfactory as Lutring the best performance in the film is probably that of Gian Maria Volonte, as his nemesis cum protector Inspector Moroni.

It's a testament to Volonte's abilities that while Moroni is very different from Cavallero in the later film, both characters are utterly convincing.

Moroni is also where the film gets even more interesting in political terms. In the Italian set portions of the film we see how he allows the media to focus on Lutring at the expense of other, actually more troublesome criminals whom he wishes to divert attention from and / or lull into a false sense of security, with a pragmatic emphasis on the either / or.

Ironically their number include one gang whom the naive Lutring brings a daring plan for a daylight robbery but who then decide to carry it out by themselves shortly before the arranged time in the hope that their erstwhile colleague will arrive just as the police do and serve as the fall guy.

The social commentary continues as Lutring flees to France, as different groups within the French police compete to be the ones who bring him to book, with predictable results.

Given all this, Lutring's position ultimately emerges as something of a riff on Peter Lorre's character in M, as a helpless figure whom everyone else, rather than wanting out of the picture, wishes to take advantage of.

Lizzani achieves a nice balance between modes in his direction, with enough style to avoid simply being a documentary and enough documentary to effectively convey the reality of the characters and their world as part of our own. This is perhaps best realised in the nightclub scenes, which are simultaneously realistic and expressive to convey a sleazy glamour, and the set-piece robberies, as a how (not) to do it guide.

Ennio Morricone's score is beautiful in its simplicity, building tension through the use of quasi-minimalist 'cells' of piano and percussion in the suspense and action sequences and expanding out for lush vocal numbers in the nightclub scenes.

Volonte's younger brother Claudio Camaso - if anything an even more intense performer - also appears in the film.

Spiando Marina / The Smile of the Fox / Foxy Lady

Foxy Lady has three things going for it. The first two are the most obvious: Deborah Caprioglio's 'charms,' prominently displayed throughout in all their glory. The third, the direction by George Raminto, takes a little, but not much more discernment, as he places the camera in somewhat unexpected places and moves it in somewhat unexpected ways, as with an early shot that begins as an establishing shot before tracking back as the characters advance.

Who is this guy and why have I never heard of him before, I wondered. Maybe he's not a top-flight filmmaker but definitely someone with the air of a solid B-man whose whose work would be worth exploring further.

I did a spot of investigation and it became much clearer: behind the George Raminto pseudonym lies none other than Sergio Martino, one of the undisputed masters of the giallo form.

Or maybe not, as a second mystery then arises: Martino, while sometimes using a pseudonym, is not the sort of guy who you'd think would want or need one here.

True, Foxy Lady is the kind of film that might be labeled a giallo for convenience sake, being a hitman revenge drama cum erotic thriller more than your traditional murder mystery, but some more traditional elements - voyeurism and sexual perversion, a protagonist troubled by traumatic flashbacks to a life-defining incident in the past, rendered in slow-motion for added impact - are there as well.

The biggest problem the film has is its script, courtesy of Martino and Piero Regnoli. Going for surprise over suspense, the narrative both strains credulity whilst you are watching and raises a number of Hitchcockian "icebox" moments afterwards.

There is the odd self-referential touch, with Caprioglio's character remarking at one point that hers is "Such a stupid story [which] sounds like a trashy soap opera," but these aren't enough.

The first issue here, excusable in terms of market realities trumping others, is the basic set up: Steve Bond is a corrupt ex-cop, who was caught working for a drug smuggling cartels and then turned on them to save himself, with the consequence that they killed his wife and son.

The second, slighly less excusable but still probably explicable in terms of co-production opportunities, is the setting, Buenos Aires, Argentina, as the supposed home of the cartel: how many Argentinean drug cartels have you heard of?

The third is the thing which brings Bond and Caprioglo's characters, Mark and Marina, together, that they are neighbours in the same apartment block.

In itself this wouldn't be a problem, other than the possible implausibility of Mark being assigned to do the hit and then having to wait weeks for his target to be announced to him.

Well, that and the eventual identification of said target as Marina's effective owner, who conveniently beats and brutalises her for added emotional impact, along with remarks made by Mark's contact which imply that they and she are all part of the same conspiracy.

Or, it's Martino as director versus Martino as screenwriter, with the former not quite able to overcome the inadequacies of the latter. But if Foxy Lady is thus a failure as a film, it is also a revealing one, by virtue of identifying how much Martino needed a screenwriter such as Ernesto Gastaldi to make it all work and the distinction between his gialli and those of an Argento, where style and substance were inseparable.

La Legge violenta della squadra anticrimine / Cross Shot

The perfect poliziotteschi?

In truth I doubt that such a thing exists, in that there will be as many perfect examples as they are variations in the form, in that Lenzi vs Damiano or Merli vs Milian way.

But for a film with a fine balance between action, character-driven drama and socio-political commentary on Italy during the years of lead - a combination also featured in director Stelvio Massi's highly recommended Marc the Narc trilogy - Cross Shot may be difficult to beat.

John Saxon plays Commissioner Javocella, a no-nonsense cop frustrated by the shackles procedure places on his men, the thanklessness of their task, and the way in which the bad guys act with impunity and then go free on the rare occasions when they are brought to trial.

Lee J Cobb plays Dante Ragusa, a blind old-school mafia boss who has used a combination of threats and pay-offs to secure the right to redevelop the city, Bari, his way.

Lino Capolicchio plays Antonio Blasi, a young punk who joins a group of career criminals in a raid on an armoured car and soon finds himself way out of his depth after killing a cop and inadvertently hijacking a car belonging to one of Ragusa's men, containing as it does a briefcase full of incriminating documents detailing pay-offs to the city's government.

Then there is Renzo Palmer's Maselli, a left-liberal journalist concerned by Javocella's emphasis on order at the expense of law, takes every opportunity he can to sell extra copies by critiquing the police and their methods and who positions himself in-between Blasi and his pursuers in search of a scoop.

Finally, there are a whole host of well-drawn supporting characters - Blasi's well-meaning girlfriend, who only realises too late what he and now she have gotten themselves into; Javocella and Maselli's underlings, providing a chorus and commentary on their actions; and the Ragusa's lieutenants and son, the latter a disappointment who owes his position to family ties rather than his own abilities.

While the villains of the piece, in the form of the representatives of organised crime and those within the establishment who co-operate with them - here note the unseen governor's refusal to support Javocella - are are clear everything else is suitably indistinct. Maselli and Javocella are presented closer to one another than they might like to think, being likened at one point they are likened to two dogs fighting for a scrap of a bone

Likewise, although Massi pulls no punches, as illustrated by Javocella's penchant for beating on suspects a la Merli; his instruction not to cover the body of his murdered colleague, apparently a 23-year-old whose wife had just given birth to their first child, for added impact; or the way in which the other robbers throw a woman out of her hijacked car into the path of the incoming police car, he also makes Blasi almost sympathetic, a 1970s update of your classic noir era victim of circumstance. (Perhaps because of the two young lovers on the run set-up, I was reminded here of Farley Granger's character in They Live By Night.)

The expression on Capolicchio's face as he pulls the trigger on the machine gun he's only just been given - and here credit must go to the actor, one of those to straddled the divide between filone and auteur cinemas - tells us everything we need to know: I wasn't prepared for this! What have I just done?

Likewise, it seems plausible that his plight is worsened not only by Javocella's approach but also Maselli's not entirely neutral representation of the same.

Besides drawing out the best from his cast and handling the action scenes well, Massi also makes good use of the Bari locations - themselves welcome as an alternative to the more usual Naples, Rome or Turin - and provides some fascinating actuality footage of the newspaper typesetters and presses which, in conjunction with the other technology on display, further helps make the film into a real document of its time.

Definitely well worth a look, even in this panned and scanned Greek subtitled, English dubbed version.

Friday 6 February 2009


Thanks to the guys at Mad Mad Mad Movies for the Dardos Award. It's always good to know that people are appreciating the blog :-)

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Hammer psycho thriller posters, Italian style

Fear in the Night:


La Ragazza di Via Condotti / La Chica de Via Condotti / le Crime de la Via Condotti / Meurtres à Rome / Special Killers / Un flic obstiné

This French-Spanish-Italian is one of those crossover films that can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a poliziotto or a giallo, featuring as it does blackmail; a sex killer; fistfights, shoot outs, assassination and car chases. Unfortunately despite – or perhaps because of this mixture of crime thriller ingredients – it fails to find a coherent identity and ends up amounting to less than the sum of its parts.

As a giallo, the most obvious point of comparison given its co-production nature; the presence of Alberto De Martino and Simon Andreu amongst the cast; the importance of blackmail and other photographs, is probably Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion.

But, with a male protagonist, the equivalent ‘lady’ here, as incarnated by Femi Benussi, is reduced to a supporting role and is very much a suspect, being a less-than-respectable type – a stripper – who has managed to win her place in Rome society through dubious methods.

We open with a memorably shocking scene, recalling none less than House on the Edge of the Park, as Simone Mattei is strangled by her lover, who climaxes at the point of her death.

The killer, whoever he is, drops a photograph at the scene, which is discovered by Simone’s estranged husband Sandro along with her body. Having an iron-clad alibi by virtue of being with his photographer friend Tiffany at the time, Sandro calls the police. They prove characteristically ineffectual anyway, encouraging Sandro to put his Private Investigator skills to work. Tiffany blows up the photo for him, revealing Benussi’s character, Laura Damiani, to leading them to her and all into danger...

Though featuring a committed performance from Frederick Stafford as Sandro, suitably slimy and attractive support from De Martino and Andreu and Benussi and Claude Jade respectively, and an effective score from Enrico Simonetti (father of Goblin’s Claudio), Germán Lorente’s direction tends towards the perfunctory – look, I can shoot a car chase or a fist-fight in an wrecking yard, but don’t have the imagination or ability to make it different from anyone else’s – and the unpleasant.

While some unpleasantness is often a good thing in this kind of film, what we have here, such as the random shooting of a citizen who tries to intervene; the rape-murder antagonist; the swiping of a cop against a wall during a car chase, and a pervasive atmosphere of cynicism, makes for guilty rather than guilty pleasure viewing and something more often than not in bad taste than good bad taste.

Monday 2 February 2009

Delitti privati / Private Crimes

The discovery of murdered businessman Marco Pierboni sends shock waves through the small Italian town of Lucca. At first journalist Nicole Venturi (Edwige Fenech) sees the crime and the mystery surrounding it as an opportunity to make her name But then, as her own daughter Sandra proves missing and is subequently found dead, her involvement takes a decidedly more personal turn....

Also investigating are Rome-based crime reporter Andrea Baresi; Sandra's former boyfriend Paolo and Inspector Avanza (Ray Lovelock) with a plethora of suspects for one or other murder and all manner of intrigues involving the town's prominent citizens (including Alida Valli, Paolo Malco and Gabrielle Ferzetti) in blackmail, loan-sharking, prostitution and so forth...

There's no getting away from it: Delitti privati often appears very much to be Twin Peaks all'italiana. But while it's certainly possible that it was put together in the style of Lynch's series, there are certain elements that thankfully show its creators were not just slavishly attempting to copy their US model and instead adapted it to their own context.

One obvious difference is what, for want of a better description, we might term the 'weirdness' of the two series. Whereas Twin Peaks increasingly moved into surrealistic terrain, Delitti privati remains firmly within the realm of the mundane. Crucially, it's not that director Sergio Martino couldn't have done a more supernaturally tinged mystery thriller, as illustrated by All the Colours of the Dark, more that he and his collaborators again seem reluctant to abandon 'narrative' logic (Colours' approach to the occult) in favour of 'cinematic' logic (Tragic Ceremony's approach to similar material), with this further demonstrated by the importance of various McGuffins here, most obviously the ten letters that will reveal the identity of Sandra's killer.

Indeed, it is also telling that the two apparent exceptions to the mundane within Delitti privati, a spirit medium who attempts to determine the location of the missing Sandra and a ghostly appearance at the window of a supposedly abandoned villa, are retrospectively explained away in non-supernatural terms. (A wider Martino thought / question: is one of the distinguishing characteristics of his cinema a basic refusal of non-rational / scientific explanations, of countenancing any world beyond what can be known empirically?)

Fragments of yellow

Another related difference is the relatively closed nature of Delitti privati as a text, running six hours, as a duration more comparable to the first series of Twin Peaks than the seemingly endless second, and containing a clear beginning, middle and end narrative trajectories in the discovery, the investigation and the resolution of the crime / mystery.

Little details and impossible points of view

Perhaps, however, the real point of comparison is less Twin Peaks than one of its sources, namely Peyton Place, insofar as it introduced the small-town with secrets setting common to both Lynch and Martino's series, along with the more soap-opera like intrigues of affairs, illegitimate children and suchlike.

Whie Martino's direction appears less stylish than his 1970s gialli, it is evident on closer examination that this can be attributed to a combination of the smaller dimensions of the screen; the limitations in presenting graphic content in a prime-time series for which international sales were sought; and the sheer imaginative challenge that presenting even the set pieces in a poetic manner would pose given the series’ length. If Lynch arguably achieved poeticism through the aforementioned atmosphere of weirdness, the increasing alienation of the mainstream audience from Twin Peaks’ second series seems indicative of a more fundamental problem of expectations and understandings here.

Not an image for ailurophobes...

What we do get within Delitti privati are, however, a number of more subtle touches that serve to indicate Martino’s ever-adaptable talents. There are some nicely executed suspense sequences, including one featuring a gliding Steadicam shot that would not have been out of place in Opera and is belatedly revealed / justified as being from a dog's point-of-view; some clever set-ups and lighting effects, involving the symbolic use of reflections and colour, as with the image of Fenech reflected, multiplied and fragmented in a crystal glass lamp shade, or a tellingly demonic-looking close-up of her normally peaceful white cat, Minou; and the recurring but crucially not over-emphatic use yellow objects to remind us of the giallo filone itself.

Not, in truth, that the viewer would really need reminding given the plethora of intrigues and mysteries, the important role played by the amateur detective relative to the professional; the director, star and cast's previous history; or the various possible allusions to other gialli.

Thus, for example, the murder in the rain, the conservatory students and the revenge-seeking boyfriend cum suspect – the last admittedly also a Twin Peaks-ism – all recall The Bloodstained Butterfly, the small university town setting and suspect professor Torso.

Similarly, whilst a necklace found in one character's possession again has its counterpart as a McGuffin in Lynch's series, it can also be read in relation to the likes of The Case of the Scorpion's Tail; that it is of St George might be understood as an obscure in-joke targeted at Dario Argento's penchant for wearing a similar piece of jewelery.

Another point of interest for the fan of the early 1970s giallo is in seeing how things have changed over the course of the intervening two decades.

Fenech's strong, independent, divorced protagonist with an actual career of her own as a journalist – an element which goes largely unremarked upon, unlike in Deep Red – is about as different as can be imagined from the fragile, neurotic, in need of male protection characters typical of her earlier films for Martino, suicide attempt notwithstanding, and thus might be read something a testament to feminist progress.

Fenech deglamourised

The use of technology is also worth noting. On the one hand, computers are omnipresent tools, a suspect worries about the DNA evidence that would surely incriminate him, and the pragmatism of the gun has triumphed over the fetishism of the straight razor. On the other, the mobile phone has not yet rendered impossible certain classic scenarios, whilst the old device of a typewriter's tell-tale signature is used rather than the more anonymous laser printer.

A statement of strength and independence

As with the performances, the production values are always at least competent, serving to indicate that the decline of the Italian popular cinema around this time – or its retreat onto the small screen – was less about a lack of talent as of opportunities for this talent to prove itself to a wider audience. (Who, watching Monica Belucci as one of Dracula's brides in Bram Stoker's Dracula, would have predicted a wider international career for her in 1992?)

As indicated, Fenech, who co-produced the series through her company Immagine e cinema, really demonstrates how far she had come as an actress over the previous quarter century. Though certainly still incredibly attractive in a MILF-y way, it's less about removing her clothes at almost any opportunity than showcasing her hard-won range and, in some sequences, an admirable willingness to appear distinctly un-glamorous. This in turn also helps explicate why she has endured in a way that otherwise comparable starlets such as Femi Benussi – equally lovely though she was stripping nude for her killers – have not.

Natale Massara's music is a bit of a mixed bag. His orchestral themes, which I felt betrayed the influence of frequent collaborator Pino Donaggio, were more effective than his action and suspense cues, which suffered from artificial, cheap and anonymous sounding synth and percussion work. While the two numbers sung by Milva are welcome, one appearing to be an attempt at producing something comparable to the Twin Peaks theme, the overall impression was of a relative lack of coherent identity of the sort that Bruno Nicolai – admittedly sadly deceased by this time – brought to Martino's 1970s gialli scores.

In sum, a series that requires a bit of effort to get into and appreciate and which, as such, is better recommended to the already committed giallo fan than the newcomer, but which nevertheless proves rewarding watching – especially if one is also a Fenech fan.