“La lupa mannara” (1976)
Lycanthropy becomes the subject of pathology rather than mythology in Rino Di Silvestro’s “La lupa mannara” (“Werewolf Woman”), a film that features an unsettling performance by Annik Borel as Daniela Neseri, a victim of teen rape who enters into adulthood with deep psychological scarring indelibly reinforced by the discovery of a horrid familial legend concerning an physically identical antecedent unceremoniously burned alive for being a murderous werewolf.
If the film appears to begin as a standard, if uncommonly anatomically revealing horror film, these opening indulgences in the supernatural are merely the vehicle by which Daniela’s psychic obsessions are made manifest first as nightmares and later, as her grip on reality continues to erode, as delusional route markers on her path to total madness; in the hallucinatory form of a her ancestral doppelgänger (also played by Borel, albeit with spotty hirsute applications and dreadful Silly Putty make-up).
Sneaking a peek at her visiting sister Elena (Dagmar Lassander) and her husband carnally engaged, Daniela, inspired by delusions of lunar influence which acts to conflate her primal sexual urges and uncontrollable violent impulses, savagely murders her brother-in-law, though his wounds are improbably attributed to an accidental fall and dog bites. Unsuspected of the crime, Daniela’s psychiatric state is such that she is is placed in a mental hospital administered by the same doctor who confided to Daniels’s father, Count Neseri (Tino Carraro) with an inordinate amount of nonsensical psychobabble meant to explain the rudimentary basis for all that is occurring in Daniela’s mind, though the miasma of oral diagnostic clutter affords as much impractical scientific value as that communicated on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Daniela escapes, but not before being groped by and then killing the traditional resident nymphomaniac (consistent with the easy bake recipes of Italian horror films, mental hospitals are depicted as the most laxly managed institutions imaginable), then engaging in a bloody crime spree, critically injuring a doctor and slaying both a would-be rapist (this seems to be an alarming trend among the Italian male as depicted in this film) and an innocent farm girl who has just enjoyed a literal roll in the hay. Meanwhile, enter plodding Police Inspector Modica (Frederick Stafford, perfecting something one might identify as stolidly amused gravitas) who regularly updates the body count in an efficient but inconsequential manner which virtually guarantees he’ll always be ineffectively three steps behind the action.
“La lupa mannara” aspires not to be your average Italian exploitation film as it definitely hits upon some very novel thematic reconsiderations of the werewolf film, and the horror film in general. In identifying lycanthropy as a pathological affliction rather than a circumstance born of the supernatural, the condition is afforded verisimilitude in the context of the diagnostic discussions and therefore removing the horror of Daniela’s escalating delusional state from the trite affectations of classic horror films; there are no gypsies, pentagrams or silver bullets here, only medical intangibles; with her condition all the more horrific for its clinically irremediable nature. The film’s sole concession to traditional werewolf films is in the Daniela’s rather hokey dreamscape visions dramatizing the source of her reinforced paranoiac derangement; a nightmare that illustrates her cursed ancestral legacy. How unfortunate for the poor woman that the indignity of her illness extends to her most vividly realized intimate terrors being comprised of stale horror movie tropes: torch bearing villagers indeed.
If madness provides no variety in the eventual path of Daniela’s actions (one might think that the unsound of mind might be capable of occasional surprising behavior), the film does compensate somewhat (though not in a positive way) with its continuous sharp detours of intended purpose. Just what does Di Silvestro wish his film to be? If “La lupa mannara” is intended as a psychological drama with its foundation in elements usually reserved for the horror film it doesn’t explore either direction with sufficient depth. There are certainly precedents for movies concerning mental illness interpolating surrealist or horrific hallucinogenic sequences entering the minds of the afflicted, and in the case of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”, many of the most harrowing moments are entirely divorced from the film’s supernatural intrigues and focus on the familiarly intimidating antiseptic world of the clinical. Yet, outside of the psychiatric double-speak, there is no direct interaction between Daniela and the psychiatrists, nor is a hint of any attempt at a therapeutic curative, so the claim of the film as a study of a woman in psychological distress is unsubstantiated by the underdeveloped treatment. In fact, Di Silvestro seems to enjoy using Daniela’s illness as an excuse for mercilessly abusing her mentally, physically and sexually. For a film which places a great deal of stock in the tragedy brought about its main character due to an act of sexual assault, a great deal of time is spent with Daniela fending off unwanted penetration. Late in the film, after finding solace with a movie stuntman (whose simple kindness appears to be a miracle cure for all schizophrenic symptoms), Daniela is viciously attacked by a trio of home invaders à la “Straw Dogs” who gang rape her and murder her lover, causing her madness to conveniently reinstate itself long enough for her to exact bloody vengeance.
In actuality, while the film is an uneasy synthesis of horror, psychodrama, giallo, poliziotteschi, and revenge movie, it is the sexploitation instinct which asserts itself with sufficient frequency throughout the film that it undercuts almost every effective moment. Di Silvestro’s compulsive proclivity in exposing his actresses’ loins in the most humiliating angles and tasteless of circumstances is a prime example of auteurism of the profane; the quantity of crass surveillance of Annik Borel’s ‘genitalia may be sufficient to conjure a new definition for the word “excessive”, but for true vulgarity, the repeated crotch shots of an autopsied female victim are particularly off-putting.
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“Superseven chiama Cairo” (1965)
If imitation were genuinely the sincerest form of flattery, then Ian Fleming’s most popular creation would have merited the author the Nobel Prize for Literature. As it stands, what is entertaining in an original incarnation tends to lose its vitality through the lack of necessity of bringing the fullest creative juices to bear when the task is merely slavish reproduction. As a paper tracing of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe might have a shadowy resemblance to the original but without the finished artistry of the oil on canvas, so too does this imitation James Bond adventure aspire to anything more than a counterfeit reminder of the genuine article.
Umberto Lenzi’s “Superseven chiama Cairo”, which introduces his secret agent Martin Stevens, aka Superseven, finds its obvious inspiration in the commercial success of the 007 series, and to a point it is faithful in including those elements which are easily replicated without the necessary style or craftsmanship to which the Bond franchise, up to that point, had become recognized: the global location hopping to picturesque backdrops; the constant supply of beddable shapely women, at least one of whom is an agent working for the forces of wrongdoing; and an archvillian whose modus operandi is to openly blab his plans to the hero while failing to dispatch him, necessitating a prolonged series of chases, recaptures and incidents of increasingly absurd endangerment.
The film begins with a rather tepid representation of a Bondian pre-credit sequence which also introduces the convenient gadget which has no intrinsic value except to save agent Martin from deadly perils which the film’s Q branch couldn’t have possibly foreseen. During the perfunctory briefing with the head of Intelligence (here referred to as “the Professor” rather than “M”), Martin is given his assignment: to track down a stolen sample of a newly discovered element which measures one hundred times the radioactivity of uranium which, for reasons never explained, has been refitted as a lens for a home movie camera and carelessly lost after being shipped to a store in Cairo and mistakenly sold to a tourist unrelated to the criminal enterprise. From the start, the plot is littered with implausibilities and illogic: why, for instance, don’t the thieves simply smuggle the stolen element to the Russians by way of courier as opposed to the needless theatrics which result in allowing for the loss of the element intercession by innocent parties? What is the considered threat over the lost sample since unless the enemy agents are capable of alchemy, the elemental McGuffin could hardly be replicated? Since Martin is always five steps behind the criminals, why the need for a planted double agent? Why do the criminals commit a succession of assassinations against the clueless Martin’s confederates when they serve no purpose? And when Martin keeps missing the mysterious tourist through airline connections, why doesn’t he employ a simple phone call to have a fellow agent meet the man’s flight?
If some of the Bond plots leaned on the side of the preposterous (though the scriptwriters of the splendid “Goldfinger” were cognizant enough of the novel’s mathematical improbability of the Fort Knox robbery’s success to contrive a more dastardly atomic motivation in the film version), they at least were designed as criminal conspiracies on such a grand global scale sufficient that they might justify a certain lenience with credibility (as was the case on many of the finer Hitchcock thrillers) while providing entertainment told with a stylish craftsmanship. Unfortunately Lenzi’s film is short on both a compelling espionage plot and a sufficiency of craft to distract from the perfect storm of deficiencies in writing, direction and performance.
Roger Browne is all chiseled grins as Martin Stevens, though he never quite convinces that he is working with as opposed to for Intelligence. As the chief ruffian Alex, Massimo Serato exudes little menace, though he manages to endure the many shootouts and bouts of fisticuffs with his clothing impressively intact against wrinkling. However, his villainy is significantly impaired by employing the most obvious gang of thugs since Chester Gould’s gallery of cartoon grotesques. Fabienne Dali makes scant impression as Martin’s chief love interest, but an underused Rosalba Neri is appealingly eager and predictably sexy in the role of Faddja.
“Oggi a me… domani a te!” (1968)
“Oggi a me… domani a te!”, a.k.a. “Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die!”, is a not an untypical example of the spaghetti western genre (or the western, period) in that the plot is fueled by an obsessive hunger for revenge. However, rather than featuring a lone vengeance seeking individual, the method of exacting said retribution is given a novel twist with the incorporation of a small band of hired guns à la “The Magnificent Seven”, though here they might be more accurately described as “The Genre Type Five” , with the mercenary group featuring a gambler (William Berger), strongman (Bud Spencer, with an obviously fake beard), ex-lawman (Wayde Preston) and gunfighter (Franco Borelli, credited as Stanley Gordon), all lead by Kiowa (Brett Halsey, credited as Montgomery Ford), a mysterious man of few words who just happens to be wearing the exact outfit worn by Franco Nero’s iconic Django.
The quintet is on the hunt for the machete wielding leader of a group of vicious Comancheros, Elfego (Japanese great Tatsuya Nakadai, slumming here), who is seen in a sepia toned flashback sequence (which makes the mise-en-scene look even more impoverished than it already does) killing Kiowa’s wife and framing him for which he is sent to prison, and thus providing the fuel for sour grapes that provides the film its threadbare plot. At no time is it explained why Elfego engages in such an act of betrayal as he and Kiowa appear to have been friends. (Are they? Who knows?) Nor are we privy as to how Kiowa- beyond the promise of ten thousand dollars each – persuasively recruits his hired guns to ride with a stranger and face off against tremendous odds, when the motive is personal? Where are his persuasive arguments? And most importantly, when is the strategy revealed in defeating a small army of killers?
Kiowa supposedly cross-crosses the frontier to assemble his team of killers, yet there is not a single demonstration nor any mention of their individual skills which would make any of them, in particular, so indispensable to the task at hand. With the total absence of exposition, only an overfamiliarity of the most basic genre tropes assists in following the skeletal structure of the plot without When is this ever discussed? with the resulting nighttime confrontation in a darkened forest seeming to count on the fact that every one of Elfego’s men will just happen to stumble upon every unlikely guerilla ambush. Every character in the film can only be viewed as a genre type as there is not a single scene dedicated to development of character. Nor is there a single conversation among the men in the entire film. The taciturn nature of the film’s characters make the mute gunslinger Silenzio of “Il grande silenzio” look like a chatterbox by comparison. With the volume of dialogue so sparse that it could easily be inscribed verbatim on a standard index card, there is certainly nothing in the way of a camaraderie or loyalty developing between the five, which makes the attempted sentimentality expressed in the closing moments (the only humanity expressed in the entire picture) not only misplaced but laughably absurd. Just what were the screenwriters thinking of anyway? That such a paucity of plotting and dialogue required the effort of two writers is shocking enough, but more so when one of the creative talents was none other than that most overrated of Italian filmmakers, Dario Argento, who was so obviously pleased with his efforts here, that he didn’t hesitate to crib them for the script to the 1969 spaghetti western “Un esercito di 5 uomini”.
First time director (and co-writer) Tonino Cervi proves that despite his impressive résumé in producing for a number of Italy’s most prestigious filmmaking talents, he learned nothing about framing action, pacing a scene or the development of a script which might encourage genuine performances. However, thanks to his multitudinous close-ups, it’s probably safe to say that although Brett Halsey chooses to go under the name Ford, a more appropriate moniker might be Wood.
“La Venere dei pirati” (1960)
There is a great deal of bluster but very little genuine swashbuckling in Mario Costa’s “La Venere dei pirati” (aka, “Queen of the Pirates”), which seems to trade on the attractiveness of its star Gianna Maria Canale to distract from the fact that she is neither particularly proficient at swordplay, nor of the general physicality required to be the mistress of (rather than on) a pirate ship. She does, however, in the grand tradition of the postwar Italian film actresses, fill out her costumes to great curvaceous effect, which comes in handy when the film makes the inevitable slide from adventure into the less strenuous but equally active arena of high seas necking. (Though the film does commit a fatal tactical error in that no matter how comely Miss Canale, she is outclassed in beauty by Scilla Gabel and in earthy sexuality by Moira Orfei.)
The cardboard settings and not-quite-clever-enough-cutting meant to deflect attention from some injurious budgetary shortcomings which assist in grounding the film in an unfortunate matinee movie purgatory, where the predictability of the material corresponds with a certain lethargy of forward action, when it becomes all too apparent that the film makers are laboriously marking time in keeping the adversarial parties separated until the inevitable climactic meeting of steel, brawn and a few carefully chosen vocal barbs. The film promises excitement but never delivers; even comprised as it is with an impressively varied quantity of genre clichés, Costa is too busy in the introduction of every possible genre trope to develop a single one of them beyond a fleeting drive by wave of recognition, so the narrative jerks along episodically, without ever treating any of the sequences as if they were truly organic to the plot.
Victimized by the cruelty and corruption of Duke Zulian (Paul Muller), ruler of the Duchy of Doruzza, a ship’s captain, Mirko (José Jaspe) and his daughter Sandra (Canale) are imprisoned,with the father condemned to hang and while his daughter is fated to be shipped to an overseas auction where she will be forced into a harem, a fate thwarted only with the timely intercession of the newly arrived Count Cesare di Santacroce (Massimo Serato), who immediately begins to woo the Duke’s lovely but treacherous daughter Isabella (Scilla Gabel). Mirko is freed by two of his former sailors, then hiding on the ship intended to spirit his daughter away. A rather conveniently easy mutiny later, Mirko takes charge of the ship and the now freed Sandra, after besting L’Albanese (Livio Lorenzon), the leader of the Adriatic pirates, in a rather paltry dueling exhibition that only demonstrates a desperate need for more pre-production rehearsal time, becomes- if for no other reason than her top billing -the Queen of the pirates, who begins a campaign of attacks (depicted in a rather hurried and badly staged montage) against the Duke’s ships in an attempt to strike at the tyrant’s fortune and to weaken him for an eventual overthrow. Conveniently, the Count, now engaged to Isabella, announces he has a plan to defeat the troublesome pirate queen (whose identity is suspected by the craft Isabella, is unknown to him) as a wedding gift for his intended. The plan is completely nonsensical, as noted by the Count’s servant Battista (Giustino Durano), who is present only for the supposed comic value of his persistent entreaties which become so painfully obnoxious that throwing him to the sharks would seem poetic (if not critical) justice.
“La Venere dei pirati” is the type of adventure film where the antagonist are constantly announcing their cleverness while displaying no intelligence for strategy or tactical planning. The film ends with what should be a vigorous storming of the Duke’s castle that demonstrates director Costa’s inability to properly stage an action sequence, with random shots of cannon fire (consistent with earlier footage of a naval battle where the ships were improperly aligned for the broadside barrages to hit their target, the castle siege sequence features endless smoky cannon flumes that seem aimed at conspicuously ineffective angles) and aimless shots of charging extras meant to signify a cohesive plan of action though, as is often callously typical of such period costume spectacles where the self-interest of the heroically situated protagonists are somehow interpolated as a reason for a massive revolutionary overthrow, most of the scurrying numbers are representative of cannon fodder whose sacrifice occurs without a whisper of notice as long as the primary objective is achieved: the blending of lips of the romantic leads. Much could be made of the cynicism involved in an entire genre whose purpose is to play matchmaker to costumed eye candy at the expense of the exploited commoners, but it is a subtextual aberration generally disguised when applied with more creatively sophisticated brushstrokes. In the case of “La Venere dei pirati”, any overt intrusion of elements of distasteful thematic elements are laid bare by the film’s unskilled by-the-numbers presentation.
The cast is uniform in its efficiency of performance considering the constraints of the screenplay to enact any role as anything more than an archetypal chess piece (the unfortunate limitations of the cast’s athleticism has already been addressed), however, as is typical of international imports, the cast is scandalously treated with the removal of the Italian soundtrack, with horrendously inert vocalizations substituting for richer performances in the always ruinous dubbing process. This performance aversive version is to be avoided at all costs.
“La strage dei vampiri” (1962)
Italy’s Golden Age of Horror may seem to have begun as an imitative movement following the successful rejuvenation of the Gothic horror film by Hammer Films in 1957, itself modeled on the 1930’s Universal horror cycle -when, in fact, Italy’s initial foray into the field was Riccardo Freda’s “I vampiri”, whose release actually predated the initial relevant Hammer film (Terence Fisher’s “The Curse of Frankenstein”) by a month. Rather than settling into a redundant formula which combined the recycling of the classic horror narratives and characters, disguising the regurgitation of increasingly overly familiar materials with such sensory distraction as lurid, blood-soaked color and a baser mercenary mindset which relied on the attraction of increased violence and heaving bosoms barely contained in ripped bodices, (All inclusive in the Hammer formula.) the Italian horror finds no fidelity to a singular formula. For instance, in the aforementioned “I vampiri”, places its story in a contemporary, urban setting, is photographed in atmospheric noirish black and white and has as its protagonist, not the masculine vampire model of Bram Stoker’s, but a female monster, more in line with Sheridan Le Fanu’s conception in “Carmilla”, sans the rather latent lesbian overtones. This is not to say that there weren’t several Italian horror films that didn’t take advantage of a saturated vibrancy of color (Mario Bava’s efforts in this arena are among the most memorable in film history) but there was no standard aesthetic formula adhered to as was the case with the Universal and Hammer cycles, which would have locked the films into a redundancy of visual realization. Nor were the Italian films fixed into either strictly Gothic incarnations of horror stories or new versions of familiar horror figures, as was the mainstay of the Hammer Horror cycle. Italian horror films, though certainly derivative, (as are many of the imitative industry’s genre explorations) also moved into more challenging directions which, in one creatively industrious form, not only combined elements of krimi and horror into the iconoclastic hybrid of the Italian Giallo, but also approached the primal terrors of the traditional horror film though often emphasizing the psychological on an equal playing field with the strictly supernatural. Where classic American (and British, under the Hammer and later Amicus umbrellas) horror traditions, which are unalterably beholden to the Universal cycle- itself finding its greatest source of influence from German expressionism -are grounded in a cycle of perpetual folkloric European superstition, the Italian horror film (partially due to the fact, as if another mimicking of foreign genre- the western -the extension of expression was more attuned to fixating on the foundational visual characteristics of the vampire film itself rather than any specific contextual loyalties to narrative tropes) was able to find a wider range of expression than was possible when Hammer found disagreeable results in its own modernization of its own signatory franchise, whether adapted for contemporary settings or capitulating to the temporary Gothic popularity of the time. However, neither approach guaranteed a formula for success.
Roberto Mauri’s “La strage dei vampire” (aka, “Slaughter of the Vampires”) is a film that is seemingly influenced by Hammer’s Gothic intonations of vampiric lore as sourced from Bram Stoker’s classic novel, insofar as any movie might be influenced by that most attractive of cinematic concepts- box office success -though the film differs from Hammer’s depiction in immediately identifiable and significant ways. First, it eschews the gaudy saturated color of the British counterparts and continues the vampire film’s healthy non-Hammer relationship with the shadowy of black and white cinematography; Secondly, the film advances the threads of romanticism which are falsely remembered in the Stoker source, and certainly have very little relevance to either the Universal vampire films nor, especially, the Hammer productions which can be charitably regarded as pinnacles of romantic aridity; the figure of Dracula pronouncedly proffered as a symbol of a fascistic dominance rather than Victorian ardor.
“Le strage dei vampiri” is immediately notable for the ferocity in which the usually cringing townspeople seek out and destroy the undead predators in the opening sequence; a far cry from the noisome but ineffective torch wielding villagers of the Frankenstein series, who often seemed present merely to provide conveniently disposable bodies to be pitched off of rooftops. This is a feverishly determined bunch who wield their farming implements with a deadly ferocity like a peasantry version of Darby’s Rangers. This exhibition of unbridled mob violence, teasingly present in the Universal horror cycle where the villagers are always portrayed as being consumed by a vigilante hysteria until confronted by their monster prey, heightens an anticipation that we are in for something new in the vampire film (Hammer films, for their, part usually dispensed with a profusion of villager retaliation and generally left matters to officious, though ineffective, police inspectors) and not merely a retread of, by now, overly familiar genre tropes that become increasingly mundane with each repetitive presentation.
However, beyond the initial homicidal eruption of the villagers, “La strage dei vampire” seems unusually comfortable in settling into every permutation of vampire cliché that has caused the genre to evolve into films of comfortable quaintness; surely not the ultimate goal one might be striving to achieve. All of the familiar elements are here: the triangle of sexual repression, the clueless hero, the lady in distress, and most importantly, the derivation of the Van Helsing authority, that doctor who seems oddly familiar with things that go bump in the night. Any points of interest that emerge from the film seem accidentally rooted in the unfortunate debilitating consequences of budgetary scarcity rather than by way of any practical dramatic value. For no discernable reason, except to pad an already paper thin story, the film is saddled with a tremendous excess of footage of a coach hurtling through nondescript landscapes (Were the equine rental fees so ruinous as to call for such an abundance of poorly dubbed thundering hooves?), and there are far too many moments in which characters wander the castle grounds, absent of any clearly written motivation, as if awaiting instructions from the director’s chair. The tightfisted economy of the film extends to a shortage of location sites, perhaps responsible for the sole curious element of narrative distinction (albeit a ridiculous one), which finds the marauding vampire actually situated in the cellar of his victims. This makes for a demonstration of the powers of superior acumen on the part of the film’s vampire hunter, Dr. Nietzsche, as he fails in his vigorous search for the vampire’s coffin which, as it turns out, is only partially concealed by a wine cask and is quite visible to all.
Aggressively scored to the point of comic overreach by Aldo Piga (the music deserves a more accomplished companion movie), the film ultimately succeeds or falters on the ability of its vampire to capture the alternating moods of menace and seduction; both of which seem beyond the capabilities of the stone faced Dieter Eppler, whose presence is not assisted in any way by the amateurish make-up application which is remindful more of mime than the undead. As the surprisingly useless Dr. Nietzsche, Luigi Batzella is far too nervously lightweight, without ever demonstrating a hint of spiritual fortitude. However, the one saving grace is the performance of Graziella Granata as the doomed Louise. Combining a beauteous fragility and a barely suppressed sense of carnal deviance worthy of Barbara Steele, Granata affords the film its only authentic link to the primal splendors of the genre’s seminal source novel: a woman worthy of supernatural seduction.
“Il cappotto” / “The Overcoat” (1952)
In “Il Cappotto”, director Alberto Lattuada transposes Nikolai Gogol’s short story from 1800’s Russia to a contemporary Italy, and while the film is representative of an early fledgling move in Italian cinema in the use of a more sentimental, comedic wink in addressing issues heretofore touched upon by the harshly unforgiving gaze of neorealism, it also retains the original tale’s conclusion- the spectral revenge of a character haunting the townspeople and one particular authority in particular -that signifies a rare advance of a non-genre Italian film embracing the realm of the supernatural.
That Lattuada’s film signifies an unrecognized leap forward in the formation of many of the characteristics now commonly associated with the Italian cinema (his influence on the young Fellini can be seen in their collaborative directorial effort “Luci del varietà”), not the least significant of which is a rich vein of sentimental humanism unashamedly running through a story that in Gogol’s version is ultimately sympathetic to his protagonist after a rather cruelly drawn exposition. The original story’s bluntly critical, if darkly satiric, consideration of the oppressive and dislocating effect on the individual by both institutional social structures and their companion authority has been converted into a more comic poke at corrupt and vacuous bureaucrats whose authority seems only to exist to serve enhance their own benefits and their pay for their private pleasures. This film adaptation, by Lattuada and his small army of co-scenarists (Giorgio Prosperi, Giordano Corsi, Enzo Correlli, Luigi Materba, Leonardo Sinisgalli and Cesare Zavattini), is characterized by a mollifying of tone and a major shift in narrative focus; prioritizing the bureaucratic antagonists rather than the individual protagonist.
Carmine De Carmine (Renato Rascal), a City Hall clerk whose anonymity is symbolized by his threadbare overcoat, finds that his honest, literal response to tasks recording the self-serving plans of the Mayor (Giulio Stival) and his bureaucratic sheep are inconsistent with the more practical need to masquerade their wasteful and corrupt practices. A caring innocent amid an institution in which indifference and duplicitous mercenary gain are the operating rules (the doublespeak employed by the Mayor are skillfully composed satiric orations which blur the distinction between practical, delusional altruism and fascism), Carmine, naively overhears an impromptu meeting of officials concerning briberies, the knowledge of which convinces his immediate superior, the Secretary General, to offer him an unnecessary bonus a barely disguised bit of additional bribery for silence, which Carmine, oblivious to the true motive of the stipend, accepts to contribute to the cost of an expensive new overcoat he is having tailored; a material purchase which has a transformative effect upon the man: elevating his physical appearance with subsequent effects on his standing within the office staff, in the community and emboldening Carmine to make tentative gestures toward the woman of his dreams, who also happens to be the Mayor’s mistress, Caterina (Yvonne Sanson). Invited to a New Year’s Eve party at the Secretary General’s home, Carmine becomes intoxicated (in literally drinking the fruits of privilege) and, thus with all sensible caution abandoned, dances a waltz with Caterina, to the consternation of the Mayor. Returning home through the dark streets, he is accosted by a hooligan who robs him of his coat,
Consistent with the source story, the film experiences a sharp focal shift from humor to tragedy, though unlike in Gogol’s conception, the tragic circumstance is mollified through dilution when so much of the film’s attention has been in demonstrating the social callousness of the bureaucratic string pullers; a criticism deeply embedded in both versions, but more starkly unrelenting toward Akaky (Carmine’s name in the story) in the literary rendering, but in the process of yielding a divided screen time between the Mayor’s cadre and Carmine, the pathetic single-minded obsessiveness by which the clerk sacrifices for his coat is severely minimized. Lattuada’s adaptive additions and shifts in narrative emphasis conspire to weaken Gogol’s third act by failing to instill an appropriately desperate portrait of Carmine as a virtual prisoner of his singular goal of possessing the eponymous garment. Clearly, despite the substantial changes in the filmic adaptation, there is a retention one of the more pronounced thematic aspects of the original text: the value of material gain in awakening both a sense of self-worth, and a corresponding rise in stature in society (The bursting of this ascension through the theft of the coat is contributory in making Carmine’s plight more pitiable.), but what is missing in the film is the material ascension also encompassing the awakening of a sexual drive in Carmine, a conceit by which Gogol further expressed the pathetic dislocation suffered by Akaky; when he is introduced, Carmine is already seething with yearnings for the ripely sexual Caterina.
Carmine’s final, posthumous meeting with the Mayor, in which a sudden reversal of character undoes the entire film’s portrait of bureaucrats as an unholy alliance of frauds, cheats and scoundrels; making the hardest of the elite unaccountably pliable to the suggestion of the presence of a modest character. That this reversal is also clumsily executed, makes this version of the phantasmagorical ending of Gogol’s tale feel like a morally counterfeit version of “A Christmas Carol”, undercutting the suffering of the impoverished petitioners to whom Carmine unsuccessfully attempts to champion against City Hall’s crushing indifference while bestowing an unearned psychic beneficence toward the film’s greatest offender. The awkward magnanimity of the scene also denies Carmine’s need for closure, altering Gogol’s finale into a continuing and unexplained desire for the spectral clerk to continue a campaign of terror against entirely innocent citizens. Thus, the pessimism toward bureaucratic authority, so contemptuously exhibited by Lattuada is abandoned for a pat ending, shoveling onto the film a redemptive moral lesson by whatever unconvincing contortions of psychology necessary. Just what was Lattuada attempting to convey here?
The performances are uniformly fine, with outstanding contributions by Giulio Cali as the coat’s tailor (his hilarious and poignant pride in his creation is a masterstroke) and Renato Rascel whose Chaplinesque quality of modest dignity in the face of social indignity makes even a watered down version of Gogol’s protagonist a bittersweet gem.
“La decima vittima” / “The 10th Victim” (1965)
“It’s trendy to kill women.”
Based upon the gritty Robert Sheckley story The Seventh Victim, Elio Petri’s “La decima vittima” (or, “The 10th Victim”) extends the narrative’s themes of a competitive game of legalized homicide beyond its presumptive dystopian roots and with its refreshingly effervescent lightening of tone, manages to become a sharp observational satire on 1960’s popular culture, and more pointedly, the war of the sexes.
The homicidal kill as sport has been an cultural staple since the publication of Richard Connell’s seminal short story “The Most Dangerous Game” in 1924, and has been used in dozens of films, though an escalated variant of the theme saw a greater emergence with the increased production of large scale SF films which seem to have a grim, dystopian bent (Hollywood’s outlook on the future of the world seems to have no room for the notion of nations comprised of surviving democratic principles) which are based on an alarming misunderstanding of Western political theory with filmmakers presuming the unexplained collapse of a democratic structure is automatically usurped by a popular slavishness to an untenable dystopian ideal, and that the best method of tranquilizing the masses would be to encourage it into a widespread campaign of embracing the anarchic attraction of an organized game of violence; a completely illogical model of social engineering which relies heavily on the dubious premise that the way to mollify the behavior of a population is through violent media stimulation (in fact, just the opposite is true), a psychologically nonsensical aberration which may explain Edward R. Murrow’s observation- a sly paraphrasing of Karl Marx’ quotation from his Deutsch Französische Jahrbücher -that television may be the “opiate of the people”, since a steady, deliberately forced diet of violent imagery would be more likely to stimulate rather than sedate instincts conducive to hostility; as exampled by the feral devotion toward the combatants as portrayed in Norman Jewison’s 1975 “Rollerball”, Paul Bartel’s 1975 “Death Race 2000” and Paul Michael Glaser’s 1986 “The Running Man” to more contemporary examples such as “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games”.
In “La decima vittima”, the actual motivation for the sanctioning of such a publicized hunt contains far different motivations in Shockley’s original story and though the film’s interests do not extend to a sanctioning of legitimized murder as a tool of subversive societal modulation, there are passing suggestions that the game is a miracle cure for hostilities both personal and multinational- an irrationally complex version of a soothing glass of warm milk -though every action in the film contradicts these assertions and it’s the cavalier tone accompanying such blatant incongruities that contributes a great deal to the film’s charm; it has to be the most breezy dystopian fantasy ever filmed. The film’s absence of an extensive explanatory burden relieves Petri from the task of weighing down the action with the extraneous baggage of a backlog of convoluted invented history outlining an presumably alternate future social evolution (which usually only serves to confuse the audience while contributing little to the way of information relevant to the story about to unfold) in order to fully represent both credible social and political states of mind which would divert the satiric focus of the film’s storyline (being that the film is unhappily regarded as science fiction- speculative satire would be a more accurate categorization -there is already the presumption of a leap of good faith- a.k.a., a certain suspension of disbelief -expected of the audience). Rather, under the capable stewardship of director Elio Petri– himself no stranger to mocking the conventions of bureaucracies and authority which goes to extreme lengths to make itself look foolish to begin with -the film assumes an almost Orwellian melding of contemporaneous sociopolitical institutions and cautionary speculative evolution of conditions and behavior arising if those same institutions were run unchecked.
That being said, what saves the film from emerging as just another in a series of futuristic funk sessions is twofold: Petri’s biting satiric eye and its compliment by way of a scathingly witty script by Tonino Guerra, Ennio Flaiano, Giorgio Salvioni, Elio Petri and Ernesto Gastaldi which effortlessly creates a self-contained alternate reality richly mined for comedy with a minimum of the tiresome cartoon exaggeration which tends to undermine most cinematic social satire with an unnecessary level of tastelessness mired in buffoonery. The world depicted in “La decima vittima” is entirely ridiculous, yet so recognizable as closely approximating real-life as to give the sensation of watching a serious film under the influence of nitrous oxide. In fact, except for the the initial concept of cold-blooded killing as competitive sport, the film is surprisingly good-natured and a great deal of fun; perhaps the only filmed derivation of the original Connell conception in which the conflicting dynamic goal becomes less about the hunt for the kill than the hunt for the heart; a transmutation of purpose which has the potential to become cloying if the level of reconception is arrived at by means in which the story becomes overly sentimental, a circumstance handily avoided by making the principle characters convinced of their own invincibly pragmatic cunning; a certainty that preserves an uncertainty in the audience: just what will be the outcome of the extended, teasing and sexually charged pas de deux?
In the near future, aggressions are mollified by “The Big Hunt”, an international human safari of the hunter and the hunted, in which combatants are paired off by computer, with the hunter supplied with a full folio of information on their prey and the hunted merely left to their own devices. Each round finds an alternation of role from hunter to hunted and back again until a contestant survives all ten rounds and wins a million dollars plus an assortment of door prizes. With this set-up, enter the contestants: Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress), an American who is the hunter on her tenth contest, and Marcello Poletti (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian who is now the hunted on his seventh. Immediately, in a pair of witty introductory sequences, with Caroline pursued through the streets and alleys of New York until gunning down her hunter with a high caliber brassiere and Marcello rather sheepishly dispatching his quarry with a pair of explosive equestrian boots (the pair’s use of extravagantly elaborate devices in their killings filters their actions with a joke shop quality- at one point Marcello plans to dispatch Caroline with the use of an ejector seat and a crocodile -that removes any potentially souring hard-edge to their actions), the amusing dichotomy of the protagonists’ characters are exhibited as Caroline is portrayed as an ebullient, energetic contestant whereas the character Marcello’s behavior is consistent with actor Marcello’s screen persona: the amiable but passively weary Roman who invests as little conspicuous effort as possible in dealing with even a possibly fatal situation. The film playfully reverses the traditional tendency toward a more masculine aggressive gender role and by portraying Marcello as submerged in a world of emasculating female empowerment, he is pulled /into him into a different direction based upon the differing demands of the individual characters (wife, mistress, hunter) despite their often working in harmonious collusion, Petri creates a universe in which the Battle of the Sexes is no battle at all, but a one-sided assault of the empowered woman against the emotionally exhausted male. In the film’s witty yet subtle acknowledgement to the rising feminist tide
of the time, sex is not the battleground but the power inherent in the control of that sexuality. In the world of “La decima vittima”, women are depicted as being completely in charge, having figured out the brainless needs of the male and one of the more original comic aspects of the film is its cavalier challenge to the feminist sensibility by posing the simple hypothetical inquiry: “ O.K., men have handed you the keys to their kingdom, now what are you going to do about it?” (The fact that the circumstances and subsequent responses are entirely assembled from the minds of men may seem to give the film’s males an unfair chauvinistic advantage, but this is not the case: men are just as severely ribbed- actually more so -as the women. To paraphrase a bit of vintage advice: simply ignore the boys behind the curtain.)
Petri sets the tone of the film in the opening sequence where Caroline is seen avoiding assassination in a manner that is almost playful. There doesn’t seem to be any immediacy to her eluding her hunter and by all rights, her pursuer is portrayed as far clumsier and rather thick-headed, whereas Caroline is almost cat-like in her sensuously dexterous manner; all accented by the cottony fluff of Piero Piccioni’s jazzy scoring which will italicize the antics of the entire film with its teasing female pseudo-scat riffs. This initial pursuit, in which the woman slowly leads her pursuer into her own trap, signals what will be a consistent motif running through the film: the female as predator, whether as hunter in an assassin’s game, or as an ensnarer of male freedom through matrimony or an emotional gamesmanship that, in Petri’s eyes, men are ill-equipped to prevail. There is also an amusing, subversive undercurrent of sexual politics defined as a commodity; a reverse objectification of the male as a possession Marcello’s mistress and ex-wife are far more preoccupied with money matters than with personal attachment- Marcello is a source of luxury and materialism rather than a necessary attachment for sexual intimacy (the personal pride in controlling him clearly brings the women greater satisfaction than a symbiotic personal relationship alone -and he is certainly regarded by both as more of a source of material accumulation than a source of emotional security: his ex-wife Lidia (Luce Bonifassy) being far more protective of her comradeship with Olga (Elsa Martinelli), Marcello’s mistress, who in turn seems far more physically stimulated by her random encounters with male strangers than by Marcello.) Throughout the film, the women in Marcello’s life view him as a figure of contractual (both matrimonial and promissory) convenience. In fact, the outwardly callous view that everything in life (including, but not limited to, faith, parents and death itself) can be regarded as an financial commodity is at the very core of both the film’s satire and its eventual success as a romance when a genuine exchange of emotion transcends the mercenary leanings within the film; the expectedly dire dystopian view of society transformed by a basis in commedia dell’arte rather than usual scabrous societal finger wagging.
Caroline’s ninth kill, also emphasizes a weapon yielded by women that in the film’s satiric context men are powerless against: sex. The fatal moments of her contest take place in the significantly named Masoch Club in which she emerges masked, clothed in a tin foil bikini, and entertaining the male patrons with (appropriate) physical abuse; the director emphasizing Caroline’s own knowledge of and willingness to use her flaunted “assets” to gain advantage over the male of the species and the first of many references which will contradict the State’s confident claim that the game has mollified both individual and national needs for violent behavior. (This is also borne out by the excited club emcee of this first kill thanks the Big Hunt for allowing the kill’s immediate proximity “for our amusement.”) Caroline is an interesting creation: aggressive, opportunistic, but lacking the core of mean-spiritedness which precludes her from stature as a genuine anti-heroine, her character is actually a modern variation of the screwball comedy heroine (The film makes a great deal of sense if Caroline and Marcello are seen as substitutes for Susan Vance and David Huxley from “Bringing Up Baby”) with proclivities toward violence and overt sexuality amplifying that genre’s signatory anarchic behavior. This is complimented by the sensorial befuddlement of an untypically vulnerable portrait of masculine bravura within her male competitors; the men depicted as slipping into a observational fog at the slightest hint of cleavage or smooth feminine flesh. Caroline’s tin foil masquerade is comically transparent, especially at close range, though her quarry is hypnotically oblivious, transfixed by the figure of gyrating sexuality before him, he lays down his pistol (The phallus subservient before the overpowering carnality in the design of womanhood?) moments before being liquidated by twins shots from Caroline’s deadly brassiere; a nasty response to the male fixation with breasts. Similarly, in Marcello’s investigation to determine whether or not Caroline (who, interestingly, doesn’t bother to masquerade her identity) is his pursuing hunter, there is never the slightest effort made to crosscheck information readily available as to her true identity (and therefore, intent); her previous kill having been widely publicized, freely disseminating her name and image to the public record. For their part, Women allow themselves to be presented as blatant objects of sexuality in the film without even the slightest hint of irony as these same women are portrayed as being in complete control of that sexuality and constantly employ it for personal advantage, whereas the male of the species, most prominently the Neopolitian stereotype personified by Marcello are emotionally paralyzed by their inability to maturely match wits- both intellectually and sexually -with their feminine counterparts. This imbalance of empowerment is also apparent in the increasingly desperate and labyrinthine internecine plots designed by the increasingly frustrated men to exact their competitive kills (Caroline’s corporate sponsors insistence on her tenth victory being turned into a tasteless and elaborate occasion for product placement and Marcello with his Rube Goldbergesque poolside assassination scenario), plots that are derivative of the absurdly over-the-top machinations of the comic book arch-nemesis, the men regressing to almost boyish behavior in answer to the unyielding intimidation of the female’s sexual power. (The film- beyond its approximate visual scheme to three-color pop art in the cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo -is littered with literal and allegorical references to comic books.) It is the fuel of the film’s comedic counterpoint, an absurdist sense of self-contradiction in the feminine pronouncement of entitlement to possession of their chosen male simultaneous with assurances that they are gender independent (if not outright superior) to those same men in their lives; the successful inversion of archetypal chauvinism becomes positively exhilarating.
One of the more amusing conceits of the film is that even though it is in essence a cat and mouse pursuit, there is little actual pursuit; this is by no means intended as a thriller. In fact, Caroline has initial problems connecting with the suspicious but lethargic Marcello and despite the nature of their feigned relationship, finds herself charmed by him. However, that this appearance of attraction may be a masquerade on her part is not lost on Marcello, whose suspicions are aroused almost immediately though he continually hesitates to take counteraction, mainly todue the fact that mistakenly killing a “civilian” leads to harsh criminal penalties, and secondly because, despite his natural compunction against new intimacies (his exhaustion with people, while not misanthropic- he’s too good-natured for that -is absolute, with the last resources of his affections saved for his tiny mechanical pet), he finds himself increasingly attracted to her. Oddly, it is not emotions which are not exploited as weapons of the sexual chase but rather material reprisals with which both Olga and Lidia threaten and berate the weary Marcello; acts which ironically only serve to increase the rage in both women (their culminating unleashing of their most primal violent instincts is the final comic stab at the notion of a aggression controlled populace) as their most earnest efforts barely get a rise out of him. If Marcello is the mouse in this sexual dance then his feet are almost immediately stuck in a glue trap composed of his own hilariously emasculated masculine nature.
“La doppia ora” / “The Double Hour” (2009)
A guest at a hotel leaps from the balcony to her death. A woman attends a speed dating ritual. A pair of budding lovers is accosted during an art heist. A woman begins seeing the phantom images of a dead lover. Is it a mystery? A romantic drama? A crime thriller? A supernatural horror? Actually, a bit of all four. One of the most intriguing elements of “La doppia ora” (“The Double Hour”) is its willingness to explore the power of perception, not only in how only how one views the world objectively, but how even a casual reference may stimulate a dramatic shift in one’s perception, imparting the most innocent occurrences with a sudden dramatic urgency.
Sonia, a maid in a hotel, is cleaning a bathroom when the occupant plunges out the window to her death. Later, Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) is seen exchanging forced friendly banalities at a speed dating session until she is paired with Guido (Filippo Timi), a favored client of the session’s director Marisa (Lucia Poli), to whom Sonia feels attracted to due to his weary, realistic views of this artificial dating process and by his small but telling insights. They develop a friendship, during which Sonia discovers Guido is an ex-policeman now working as a private security guard. To reveal more would severely diminish the skillfully constructed script by Alessandro Fabbri, Ludoviza Rampoldi and Stefano Sardo which sinuously interweaves several threads of exposition that will later intersect in ways which will question their reality, not only in terms of the individual character’s viewpoint tainted by neurotic fears fueling guilt and irrational behavior, but also in how we as the viewers sift through the clues of a supposedly objectively presented viewpoint.
If Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” and Coppola’s “The Conversation” seem likely antecedents to director Giuseppe Capotondi’s film, the obfuscation of truth is not delineated in any substantial way through technological extension of the senses, as was the case both visually and aurally in the aforementioned works, but rather but is a product of a forced perspective gamesmanship that is more aligned with the psychological methodology of Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, even more so with a film containing structural befuddlement of a calculated design such as Hitchcock’s “Stage Fright” with its deliberately erroneous narrative flashback. Further comparisons might be drawn from David Mamet’s “House of Games” and “The Spanish Prisoner”, though in each of those, the calculations of structure seemed more of a priority than introspective character studies. In the case of “La doppia ora”, the manipulation of truth, rather than a means to a narrative end, serves as an enhancement to later revelations of character that emerge about both Guido and Sonia as well as significant self-realizations that result in unexpected actions. This is a film driven by psychology not technology.
The film is in essence a prism of cumulative detail that reveals the mind’s conscious and subconscious experience with equal deliberation. This is not a film for the casual viewer as seemingly random detail- sights, noises, off-hand occurrences -figure mightily in the culminating piecing of the film’s mystery, and it is incumbent of the viewer to actually pay close attention to realize the film’s ultimate rewards. This may sound like a rather obvious expectation of the audience, however, in a climate of gratuitous sensation aimed at the viewer- leaving little to the imagination save for instinctive visceral knee jerk reactions to sensory assaults, it is not difficult to detect a considerable diminishment of the need for developing an ability to detect subtlety; see a Batman film in IMAX to experience the oddly disorienting sensation, not of appreciating capably engineered action sequences, but rather of the heightened volume making your ears bleed.
Ultimately, “La doppia ora” is a film about unknowable truth, the ambiguousness with which life is constructed in countless fragmented moments, each rife with malleable variables shifting their definition by the most minute intercession of word, gesture or circumstance. Everyday experience is recorded in a seemingly banal manner, scenes unfolding without an apparent connection to a more central narrative intent, but simply living snapshots of moments capturing the mundane repetitions of habit and behavior, yet each ultimately contributing to a suppressed mental cataloging of sensorial memory that will erupt in recombined patterns, altering perceptions and ultimately causing conscious reality to be as tenuously unreliable as unconscious dream state imaginings. The driving principles of this perceptual imbalance are guilt and disappointment. Guido’s former police colleague Dante (Michele Di Mauro) alludes to instances of criminal betrayal in Sonia’s past, a source of both Sonia’s and later Guido’s latent feelings of guilt; Sonia’s manifested by a past incident with her father and also her behavior toward Guido, both also subjects to which she is the direct cause of betrayals and subsequent disappointments. Guido, on the other hand, is harboring dark demons clearly related to issues with his deceased wife (an episode of rough dismissive sex speaks volumes toward his inability to cope with women intimately that will later color his judgments and deepen the wounds of betrayal) and later acts out of a wellspring of romantic loyalty that masquerades a shattering disappointment. Both principle characters psyches are riddled with damaged layers that bring a fragile definition to their characters; lulling each into a melancholy existence devoid of intimate attachment. Ultimately, they are characters imprisoned by their own baser natures.
Then there is the reoccurrence of the double hour, a visual motif which exists solely from a passing remark by Guido in an early encounter with Sonia; signifying a “double hour” in which a person’s wish may be granted fulfillment. It is later repeated as a significantly increasingly ominous portent of things to come, or of a general state of irony, or perhaps nothing at all. Regardless, each instance of a reoccurrence is treated by both characters and film as a significant moment; a catalytic non-event that triggers neurotic memory patterns within both Sonia and Guido, often leading to panicked confusion and subsequent ill-considered actions. Despite the minimalist tone and mannered, slowly observant rhythms in which the film was shot, it does have its roots in the film thriller, (though significantly, incidents of overt violence or death occur offscreen) and the conventions of the genre have a tendency to disrupt the natural progression of character development so harmoniously melded within the fractured story structure. Ultimately, unimaginative genre considerations fail to sustain the film’s delicate tone to the finale as the level of constant narrative reinvention becomes blunted by the more banal nature of a crime film denouement.
Both Kseniya Rappoport as Sonia and Filippo Timi as Guido inhabit their roles so fully, telegraphing every hesitant impulse, every painful moment of silent desperation for emotional contact, that their performances transcend what is normally delivered and accepted as acting, and elevate into an exclusive Pantheon of artistry. Significant and notable performances are also provided by Michele Di Mauro and especially Antonia Truppo as Sonia’s friend and co-worker Margherita, an effervescent bit of fizz amid a dark and simmering brew.
Sophia Loren in the 1964 film “Matrimonio all’italiana” (“Marriage Italian Style”)