Spaghetti 10

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In order: greatest first.

The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)

An unusual Western in just about every way, with its wintry landscapes, mute protagonist, fey bounty hunter, and brutal conclusion, this is also a disconcertingly beautiful film. Every piece is perfectly in place: Morricone’s score is terse and savage for the kill scenes but the theme is a sweeping career highlight; the cinematography is epic, inventive, and subtly Avant-garde; the casting immaculate, with Klaus Kinski pulling out one of his most flamboyant performances. Corbucci is the only Italian Western director to consistently create interesting female characters, and this film has a distinct feminine streak running through it that complements the harsh logic of an otherwise lawless landscape. A film with some subtleties, and thick with atmosphere, you must watch this in Italian and avoid the crude English dub. A genre masterpiece and masterclass.

Duck, you Sucker! (Sergio Leone, 1971)

Leone’s greatest film. A genuinely affecting and multi-layered epic; a picture-essay on revolutionary ethics, human bonds, war and savagery that is deeper and more effective than the cartoon nihilism of the Dollars films or the operatic bombast of Once Upon a Time in the West. Features immaculate cinematography, piercing Morricone score and the biggest controlled explosion ever used in a film (if the stories are to be believed, it was only just controlled). Leone movies can drag; this one doesn’t. In fact, find the longest cut you can, because it will be the best.

The Big Gundown (Sergio Sollima, 1967)

Sollima’s ‘Cuchillo trilogy’ is a treat from beginning to end, and the films that follow Gundown (Face to Face and Run, Man, Run!) are in many ways its equal. But the chemistry between Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian is particularly special here and the changing dynamics in their relationship gracefully handled by Sollima. This film packs a punch – visually, musically (Morricone’s brassy score for this is an infamous favourite) but most of all emotionally.

Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)

The first Gothic masterpiece of the Italian Western cycle, this is full of strong images – the scarlet-caped killer Klansmen; the apparition-like Maria (tied up and flogged in the opening scenes); Django’s machine gun, contained in a coffin; rivers of mud. This could be too much, but the film itself is a tight, muscular unit; it’s over before you know it, and you’re left feeling a little bruised. A singular achievement – no wonder Leone was worried.

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

Leone’s rather self-conscious masterpiece, this has more in common with the likes of Senso and The Leopard than A Fistful of Dollars. However, with a little help from his old school friend Morricone and a brilliantly miscast Henry Fonda, Leone delivers on that promise. If anything, though, I think this film belongs to Claudia Cardinale: Jill McBain is the most powerful and complex female character in any of the Italian Westerns, which (you might say) generally lacks them.

The Return of Ringo (Duccio Tessari, 1965)

This is a fantastically tasty revenge flick featuring Giuliano Gemma in his iconic role of Ringo and a spicy, Iberian-tinged Nieves Navarro who treats us to a few examples of her Flamenco chops. The unfolding of Ringo’s Odysseus-like return is developed and handled with some pathos and grace; the conclusion is an unusually satisfying one, given a stirring kick by Morricone’s unforgettable theme song. This Ringo sequel is one of the most outrageously entertaining and visually ravishing of all the Italian Westerns.

Day of Anger (Tonino Valerii, 1967)

When it comes to Italian Westerns, Lee Van Cleef is The Man – more so than Eastwood or Milian or Franco Nero. Not only did these films come to define him, but his unique persona distilled something of their essence. It’s hard to think of them having quite the same impact without his slightly odd, brooding, brutal presence. Day of Anger is a film structured around rules, as Van Cleef tutors a young Giuliano Gemma in the life of a murdering outlaw. This tight two-hander is a perfect showcase for Van Cleef’s ability to bounce off other characters without ever undermining the austere integrity of his own (see also his skilled handling of a hopelessly wooden John Philip Law in Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse).

Django, Kill! (Giulio Questi, 1967)

A famously deranged entry and somewhat atypical – this is an arty take on Leone, made acceptable, even essential, by the extravagant gore, the thick, creepy atmosphere, Tomas Milian’s sometimes mesmerising performance and a whole range of strange stunts (a gay cowboy gang, bat attacks). It is hard to recommend this film to Spaghetti novices but in its own way this is an Italian touchstone.

Companeros (Sergio Corbucci, 1970)

Basically a comedy Zapata – but don’t let that put you off! This is almost interchangeable with Corbucci’s 1968 flick The Mercenary, but for me Companeros just has the edge due to Milian and Nero’s sensational on-screen partnership, the delicacy of Lola and El Vasco’s emerging relationship, a quite alarmingly mad and booze-stained performance by Jack Palance, and the film’s unforgettable, stirring final reel. It’s a classic buddy movie that actually does feel like a full journey. Again – outstanding cinematography and another classic Morricone theme.

Massacre Time (Lucio Fulci, 1966)

So, for tenth spot I toyed with Robert Hossein’s Cemetery Without Crosses, Giulio Petroni’s Tepepa and Antonio Margheriti’s And God Said to Cain, but eventually caved into the (for me) undeniable brute majesty of this early Fulci entry. It’s a handsome beast of a film that has Franco Nero and George Hilton teaming up to take on a spectacularly sadistic landowner who always wears a white suit and wields a terrifying white whip. The final shoot-out is a true epic that apparently supplied John Woo with some stylistic inspiration. This film does not get enough attention, in my opinion, and destroys his more famous 1975 attempt Four of the Apocalypse.

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Beatrice Cenci (Lucio Fulci, 1969)

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Sometime in 1969, after a semi-successful cycle of genre hackery, Lucio Fulci began to film a serious period drama. At this moment, his movies and his prospects were slowly improving; Italian cinema was at its commercial peak and Fulci’s budgets were growing in line with his audience. His personal life, however, was falling apart, as it would do over and over again until his lonely, painful death in 1996. Fulci was a pessimistic, dyspeptic character, a tortured Catholic whose best films were fuelled by his hatred of the Church; his drama, the tragedy of Beatrice Cenci, as previously rewritten by his hero Antonin Artuad, would be one such film.

Beatrice Cenci took an axe to Renaissance Rome and Papal sanctity, prompting walkouts and violence in cinemas during first screenings as well as censure by the Vatican. More than just a punchy and poignant historical drama, then, the film was an assault on a system of order and thought that was still, in the late Sixties, rotting the base of Italian society. In this sense, and in this context, the film fully justified and deserved the hostility it aroused — a fact Fulci was surely proud of.

He certainly pulled no punches. Cenci is a rancorous, physically violent film, seething beneath decorous finery. The sets and costumes are lush and expensive and Erico Menczer’s cinematography subtle and painterly — but the violence, when it comes, is harsh, graphic, undramatic, an awful routine of institutional torture. In his other anti-Catholic masterpiece of the period, Don’t Torture a Duckling, the rural south is clogged with religious dogma, vice and prejudice: local peasants are moral hypocrites and prone to irrational mob violence, while city slickers and clergy are sexual and emotional predators. But in Cenci‘s 16th Century society, violence and depravity are the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy and clergy; the masses are at their mercy, oppressed by ruling class avarice and exploitation and assaulted by the random physical and moral violations of the Church. In this sense, Beatrice’s sacrifice is cathartic and redemptive. After her death, she is idolised by an adoring public who lay fresh flowers at her tomb daily: the young girl who struck back at cruelty and turned the logic of authority back on itself is, finally, martyred.

So this is Fulci’s world, alright — a domain of power, sexuality and violence. But within these early films, unlike later visual assaults such as The Beyond and The New York Ripper, a human heart is pounding hard. Fulci’s Beatrice is not symbolic – emphatically not Shelley’s Romantic cypher or Artaud’s abstract repository or the idol she became in Italy. At the required moment she is as hard and cynical as her father; as manipulative and scheming as is necessary to succeed at murder. She lets her vassal and lover (Thomas Milian’s Olimpio) die on the rack to preserve her innocence but, later on, holds firm against her own torturers as the other Cencis succumb to the screws and branding irons. Fulci’s young actress, Adrienne La Russa, plays out these contradictions well: toothy and gauche when needed, but tough and blank as granite at the very end. La Russa also plays another Fulci trick, or trope, of this pre-Zombie period: a proximity of tenderness and brutality. (For a man who famously despised actors, this is as close as he ever got to thespian-orientated direction. He must have been pleased with her performance.)

Don Francesco Cenci (played with flamboyant menace by the French stage actor, Georges Wilson) is the epitome of patriarchal evil in this production. Nearly always flanked by a pack of rabid dogs, a key visual theme in Fulci’s early films, he abuses his family and terrorises his tenants. Fulci’s dogs are not wild dogs, but trained dogs let loose on the vulnerable and victimised — a representation and facilitation of human cruelty. His handsome 1966 Western Massacre Time opens with a pack of hounds chasing down an anonymous innocent and tearing him to pieces, a ruthless and explosive moment. The dogs belong to the son of a local landowner, a demented sadist who wields a long white whip whenever he is on screen. In Duckling, the unfortunate gypsy witch La Magiara is chased through thick forest by police dogs, as the mistaken suspect of a series of gruesome child murders. This scene crystallises her world of persecution, hounded by state and religious officials, gangs of children and male vigilantes. (Also, think of the vivisected dogs in Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, strung up in a laboratory, their little hearts still pumping blood into tubes; a different expression, or example, of human cruelty.)

In Cenci, the dogs are Don Francesco’s own demons, his own tools. At one moment, they are an instrument of arbitrary, violent justice, ripping apart an unfortunate tenant in raw, gory detail. At another moment, they express his own unnatural, animal depths: on the evening that he is celebrating the death of two of his sons (“two less mouths to feed!”), as he corners his defiant daughter in order to rape her, the hounds start to snarl and howl, in the courtyard and inside his skull. Organised cruelty, the irrational exercise of human power, and the perverse and violent impulse this engenders: the dogs impart this, and are part of it.

It is ironic – or is it indicative? – that the director of The New York Ripper should depict human cruelty and vulnerability with such graphic and relentless fury in these early films. The overt sympathy for victims (and the fact that his martyrs are both women) preludes and precludes his later, bitter blasts of cynicism and brutality. In both Duckling and Beatrice Cenci, Fulci’s outrage had not yet hollowed out; his films still pulse with anger and passion, however cold, stony, ruthless. Later, the slick city sheen of Ripper and glossy latex gore of Zombie will reflect (or deflect?) a profound and uncompromising disillusionment – with the Italian film circuit, and with his own emotional and aesthetic failure. (Cannibal Holocaust could not match that particular horror.) He wouldn’t have said it at the time, of course, and loved Zombie and The Beyond as much as every one else did; but still, it is notable that in a late interview he would finally consider Beatrice Cenci to be his finest work.

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The Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)

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I picture New York in 1978 at its peak. The city never looked or sounded better. The central and iconic locales had become sinister and often physically dangerous traps: Times Square infested with drugs and prostitution, Central Park crawling with rapists and thieves. The state was almost bankrupt and in structural decline, with an institutionally corrupt police department and entire precincts lost to criminal gangs, junkies and artists; even the federal government could not be roused to save it. The previous summer, a 25-hour power cut sparked an orgy of looting and destruction in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The city’s festering prison system came close to implosion, as the new World Trade Centre towers gleamed across the Hudson and East rivers. The atmosphere from Manhattan to Brooklyn and the Bronx was fetid and feral. As a consequence rather than a coincidence (and like Italy at exactly the same moment) the visual arts prospered, invigorated by chaos and danger and with a captive audience primed for it. From out of mayhem and malaise came searing, dynamic films like Prince of the City, Taxi Driver, The New York Ripper, Ms. 45, Cruising, The Warriors, Saturday Night Fever. By any standard it was a good run.

The Eyes of Laura Mars was a movie of this type and of this period, balanced on a porous line between wealth and squalor, high glamour and random violence, and reeking of old, down, out New York. The project began with a bad John Carpenter script picked up by the thrusting young producer Jon Peters who had some arty ambitions for his very famous fiancé. Fortunately, and probably wisely, Barbara Streisand passed on this film, and chose to sing the theme tune instead — a tacky power ballad called ‘Prisoner’ with a belting chorus line (“I’m like a prisoner captured by your eyes”) that is the song’s only thematic link to the movie it scores. Peters hired Irvin Kershner to direct the feature and the former photography lecturer and Hans Hoffman student tried to craft something psychologically subtle and visually inventive for his boss. A few years later he would be doing the same duty for George Lucas on The Empire Strikes Back which says a few conflicting things about his success here.

The title role of Laura Mars went to Faye Dunaway in full glacial pomp and on a Network high. This was a stroke of luck and it is where the movie begins. She gives the fashion photographer a haughty, frosty, static chill by manipulating look and manner alone: a Nordic ice flow under punchy New York pluck (or Germany and Texas, in real life). She is at her best when she doesn’t try to “act” Laura Mars, but simply goes to work in a New Jersey studio or at the centre of Columbus Circle dressed in phenomenal Theoni Aldredge attire and wielding her Nikon like a pick axe. The mask-like visage and Parisian poise support high principle and serious purpose. The source and point of her pictures — which include eroticised homicide scenes and other “kinky” set pieces — is seen to be moral outrage. As she explains with great emphasis to Lieutenant John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones), forced to interrogate her after she telepathically “sees” a series of murders involving friends and associates and inexplicably decides to tell the police about it, “I am giving an account of the times in which I am living…of physical, spiritual, moral, emotional murder. I can’t stop it, but I can show it. I can make people look at it.” Or, as one of her models puts it to journalists and TV crews at the glitzy SoHo exhibition party that opens the film: “we’ll use murder to sell deodorant, so you’ll just get bored with murder, right?”

Wrong. The problem is that Kershner doesn’t understand (or “get”) the kind of imagery he is using. He doesn’t even realise he’s exploiting this stuff: he thinks he’s dignifying it by offering a critique. The work of Laura Mars is treated as moral commentary and social indictment by the artist and her acolytes and dismissed as rank sexual exploitation by her newspaper critics and Lieutenant Neville (“I’d be interested to find out what type of frustrated voyeur this chick really is,” he snarls, amusingly) – but for the director it is a bit of both. Her photographic style is based on Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton whose work featured in prestigious French and American fashion spreads and advertising campaigns throughout the Seventies. Kershner even hired Newton to shoot the prop photographs that provide most of the film’s visual texture and intrigue, but his understanding of the work is sanctimonious and superficial. Therefore the function of the pictures is confused: they provide a tawdry plot device that is ultimately abandoned (the “clairvoyance” of Mars), a thematic arc that remains unexplored (vision and insight), and banal social commentary that reduces and distorts the imagery being used. In the end they are window dressing but also the only distinguishing feature of the final film, which is the photographer’s revenge.

The way that Newton’s images condition and frame ideas and action gets to the nub of things, and not just in New York and not just any city in the disintegrating Seventies; they embody the  proximity of desire and disgust and the direct link between promiscuity and alienation in the modern world. To find such outré Expressionism deployed in whatever dumb way in this pulpy American giallo is as exciting as finding it on the pages of Paris Vogue or adverts for Charles Jourdan shoes. Furthermore, we connoisseurs of this particular Golden Age of fashion imagery get an extra layer of intrigue to unravel, for the pictures — with their lurid, saturated primary colours and elaborate, violent mise-en-scènes — contain the specific traits and tones and themes of Newton’s deadly rival, Guy Bourdin. I like to think of this film as a cheap ambush in their ongoing pictorial war: Newton producing parody Bourdin snaps for a film that could be viewed as an extended insult to the Frenchman’s entire oeuvre. (Bourdin, by the way, was a far more interesting artist and imaginative technician than Newton who showed himself up in this work to be the vacuous rake he really was: a dirtier, duller Norman Parkinson.)

This all means something for Laura Mars itself. Newton’s pictures are more than props simply because their source-work is more interesting, layered and vital than anybody in or making the film appears to understand. If Kershner took the fashion photographs he exploits remotely seriously then Laura Mars might have captured the overlap of image and reality that determines how we organise our emotions and actions, or how we navigate between what we see and what we feel. But the film conveys none of this and only remains interesting as a period piece or a New York movie, and only then when it avoids the camp trap or the rot of cliché that otherwise sets in. Laura Mars at work and the models during wardrobe chatter add elements of documentary piquancy and to this end the casting of authentic Studio 54 fauna like Darlene Fluegel and Lisa Taylor is a risky, inspired move. The locations get the grain and essence of the city as Laura Mars lets sunlight into her New Jersey warehouse studio or runs in desperation down Houston Street with her grey cashmere poncho flapping frantically in the breeze. These are nice touches and enjoyable details, integral yet also incidental. Like the photographs of Newton they add everything of value to a melodramatic murder mystery that is clogged up with paranormal and psychological verbiage. When the props and locations upstage the rest of the movie then you know something has gone fatally awry, and it is not (yet) Faye Dunaway (“no wire hangers!!!”).

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The Sewer Rats (Robert Bianchi Montero, 1974)

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If ever a film deserved to disappear, this one did. It has the feel of a Spaghetti Western in the malignant mould of Django, Kill! or Cut Throats Nine but with none of the necessary trappings, as if there was no money for period costumes and props or nobody involved could be bothered to go and get them. So, it turned into an ersatz Straw Dogs, or a grotty update of Bad Day at Black Rock, instead.

This was the idea of Peplum beefcake Richard Harrison, a Hollywood reject who languished in Italian genre obscurity after refusing Clint Eastwood’s role in A Fistful of Dollars (he later described this catastrophic miscalculation as his one great contribution to cinema). As a self-propelled project, Sewer Rats is baffling: hardly flattering or career-enhancing, it revels in its lack of resources, lax squalor, casual violence and endemic grime. Harrison is ‘The Cripple’, an enigmatic wanderer with a lame leg and a faltering VW, forced to take shelter in an ex-mining town populated by a small group of sadists, perverts, thieves and cynics. This is not auspicious – or accidental. The town is defunct, largely abandoned, with a sinister sense of sexual malevolence and moral and physical pollution. A series of scrapes and scraps and rapes all lead to an inevitable and explosive dénouement that, somehow, lacks the pathos and drama evidently intended, but not the cynicism or the dirt.

This pit of mud and sin is blessed with Rita, a J&B-swigging nymphomaniac played by the divine Dagmar Lassander. By this point Dagmar had lost her late ‘60s groove (Hatchet for a Honeymoon, Femina Ridens, Photographs of a Lady above Suspicion), and as the ‘70s wore on, the roles got smaller (Emanuelle Nero 2) and stupider (Werewolf Woman) and sleazier (So Young, So Lovely, So Vicious). Her look and persona changed drastically, from fresh and curvaceous, strawberry-blonde debutant to ruby-lipped, Henna-dyed, diamond-studded, jaded Milano moll. This happened in less than five years. She was having fun, apparently, but hedonism extracted a certain price: growing hardness of features, character loss to gloss and lire, innocent energy replaced by dead-eyed, routine resilience. Acting the tramp, sowing mayhem and discord among misfits and murderers, a lone white trash cock-tease in an isolated, dangerous dive, this was a simple excursion for her, a cheque she probably enjoyed earning.

The film was released in Italian cinemas on June 5th. Days earlier, a bomb exploded in Brescia, killing eight people and inflicting significant casualties. It had been planted by far right provocateurs belonging to Ordine Nuovo, a mystical, SS-styled terrorist sect; a couple of weeks later, the Red Brigades assassinated two members of Italy’s largest neo-fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano. There was no normality or moderation to Italian politics in 1974. Pocked with city states and divided by regional discord, subject to Soviet and U.S. intrigue, stuck between Tito’s Yugoslavia and fascist regimes in Spain, Portugal and Greece, the peninsula was tense, fragile, and paranoid. Italians were braced for a military coup and primed for revolutionary violence. On top of this, Italy’s social and moral texture had been torn apart, as sex and drugs, pop culture and mass consumption collided with the malign, festering, parochial power of the Church. In response to social and political combustion – or just to keep up, to retain interest and profits – movie producers and projectors poured out cheap films stuffed with obscenity, gore, vigilante justice, atrocity and perversion. It was a good time to be creative.

Sewer Rats itself displays no art or pace or skill or any discernable cinematic qualities, but still retains the accidental, odd power bestowed by time and place. It reflects something of the society it was designed to serve: violent chauvinism and casual misogyny; paranoia and parochialism; conspiratorial occlusion and endemic corruption. The tension lingers, with every scene on the edge of either sex or slaughter. This abject piece of trash is a part of the implosion of tradition and order, fuelled by the intrigue and transgression and violent carnality that underscored everything. It is a worthless product that bears specifically Italian scars.

There’s a very strong, virulent civil violence in Italy. It’s abnormal, monstrous, grotesque. Italians wallow in the fact that they are bravi ragazzi, good people, measured and antique…But there’s an endemic violence between neighbours which lurks like a kind of fever beneath the skin.
Adriano Sofri

 

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What? (Roman Polanski, 1972)

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Between mass murder at Benedict Canyon and Oscars all round for Chinatown, two Polanski films pointed towards exorcism and catharsis. First, a Macbeth plied with Playboy cash and psychic violence, treated (correctly) as a visceral, wounded, animal response to the ritual annihilation of his wife and unborn child at the expense of Shakespearean text. A gruelling December in North Wales bore a fine and brutal film that, perhaps inevitably, got critically garroted; the following move, therefore, looked like a winner. Stuffing Carlo Ponti $$$s into sacks, Polanski ditched Snowdonian shacks for a luxurious Amalfi villa, gathering together friends and benefactors for a cryptic sex romp in the sun. With an entourage that fanned out along the immediate coast — sucking up typical trans-Atlantic trash (Franco Zeffirelli, Andy Warhol, Warren Beatty, etc.) — he decided to have fun.

What was happening here? A clotted response to still unassimilable tragedy, something out of whack with normal catastrophe, even for this Artful Dodger of the Warsaw ghetto — the tough psyche, already hardwired for epic loss, disintegrating finally and then re-calibrating in searing spring sunshine on the Mediterranean shore. Here he is moving on: dealing with the body: sexual rites and games, rather than ritual carnage. That is: he was making a new kind of film — an arty Sterne-esque Sexploiter with no sex — and it almost worked.

But there’s too much evidence of a uniquely developed nihilism, something more serious — more seriously frivolous — than anything seen since Cul-de-Sac. A deadened (dead end) jauntiness, crippled hedonism: open appetites and deep pockets for all the toxic perks and taut bodies the ‘70s Euro-aristocracy could collect together in one place. A desperate indulgence of despair, self indulgence as despair, or despair as licence for anything dared or desired: these formulations lead to stagnation. The film was, in the end, both as entertaining and as tedious as Salo or SS Girls. (And morality began to warp and buckle in this febrile, anarchic atmosphere: Polanski would soon be a world class connoisseur of teenage flesh.)

Even the pool is polluted. These people can turn rocks to dust just by looking at them. Get away!

What? dropped to universal disdain and/or indifference in 1972, except in Italy, where queues formed outside cinemas (for Italian audiences already geared to giallo and Joe D’amato it was easily digestible fair, and, after all, with Ponti and Amalfi and Marcello Mastroianni on board, this was an honorary Italian affair).

Sydne Rome, en route to Paris Vogue covers and Playboy centrefolds, was the calm centre of this dirty, dull, druggy vaudeville; a sane siren in a scene fully fuelled by who knows exactly what calibre of emotional damage? Now older, face lifted, Sydne tells us that “the atmosphere was like being on a summer holiday in Italy!” — oblivious, apparently, to the psychological fallout surrounding her. A fantastic, pneumatic, lush and peachy Ohio blonde, she presented a striking contrast: sexually healthy, mentally robust, armed with astrology and Berkley liberation, effortlessly deflecting serious strains of debauched ill health.

Marcello Mastroianni, somewhat slumming it here, happily sunk in. The Valentino of Neorealism proved willing to degrade himself, get a bit scuzzy — only with a legitimate Auteur, of course, and a multinational millionaire paying expenses. Returning to Italy during a rare fallow period and within the sphere of Polanski’s now poisonous aura, Mastroianni acted the suave and seedy and syphilitic ex-pimp with a terrifying joy and conviction. Donned in leopard skin — “Tame me!…With the whip, you fool!” — as Synde Rome, half her clothes ripped off, looked on in alarm and then, fuelled with fresh sexual innocence, picked up the whip. At that moment, the whole sordid enterprise reached apotheosis, a sort of soiled glory. And that, in a way, was enough: a sealed deal.

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Lady of the Lake (Luigi Bazzoni, 1965)

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Lady of the Lake, Luigi Bazzoni’s mid-sixties debut, is like a rough sketch for his final film, the tender and obtuse Le Orme. It shares the ellipses and eruptions: the shadows and fissures of local (small-town/ex-pat) betrayal and breakage. They are, both, fractured little tales of lost (or imagined) connections and encounters – the trail of lonely people led by indefinite and fantastic delusions to terminal locales.

They start with empty subjects, hollow lives: a writer who takes holidays out of season and doesn’t like his own books (Lady’s Bernard, played by Peter Baldwin); a mentally fragile, emotionally blank translator, whose stark white apartment symbolises her own internal void (Alice Cespi, Le Orme). Bernard returns to his favoured haunt, an off-season lake-side resort town, drawn by a local hotel maid called Tilda, with whom he enjoyed a tantalising fling on a previous visit. “I am empty inside,” he intones to some city chick he ditches from a phone box in the opening frames of the film, while fiddling with the tatty snaps of this earlier, adored, fleeting flame.

Tilda — a sly Continental Marilyn played by Virna Lisa — hardly appears in the film beyond a white-hot blur of erotic close-ups and cross-cuts. By the time Bernard returns to town, with a jaunty Gallic spring in his step, she has been poisoned, stabbed and dumped in the lake. All that remains of her is a sexual phantom — yearned for, dreaded. From here, Lady slowly unwinds a terrible conspiracy that consumes everything. Nobody will talk about Tilda’s death, but it is the only thing to talk about. In the hotel where she worked, and Bernard always stays (with memories from childhood, like the Garma hotel of Alice), Tilda was like a member of the family (a daughter, a sister, a niece: everybody’s sweetheart). Destroyed while pregnant, her brutal end unhinges everything: business and morality, trust and family ties. This unravelling has the same effect on Bernard as Alice’s own slow dissolution, so similar visual tricks abound.

Both films are optically precise, but psychologically inexact. Le Orme plays games with perception and expectation: placing empty clues and obscuring crucial codes;  using alleys and islands, architecture and décor, to disorientate and undermine. Lady tries something similar with simple techniques that are crude but also elegant. Reflections in shop windows and darkroom projections obscure reality, a physical replication of Bernard’s desperation and confusion – out of the loop and troubled by truth. Cut-up erotic tableaux contain several worlds of desire, regret, fear, love and loathing — simply by lingering on bare shoulders, or a mass of cascading Monroe locks, or the luxurious and stark foci of lip-stick and mascara. The soundtrack — which, like Le Orme, uses simple silence to startling effect, or replaces the sound of desire with eerie bird cries (hawks and herons) — manages to disturb rather than affirm the calm spell.

There is a stylistic divide between the New Wave blur and blanch of Lady and the Technicolor Storaro thrust and grandeur of Le Orme that is a matter of technique and timing and time — but they are more united than divided. Bazzoni’s first and final films, and their central protagonists, flow into each other. They both deal with words (a writer and a translator) but are assaulted by visuals. They are, together, dream-pictures: chilly, fluid, hazy, sensuous. But they are also stark, empty: at each centre is a hole, a lack.

Bazzoni released this film in 1965, the year following Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, the same year as Polanski’s Repulsion and four years after Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad — all films with some emotional and stylistic bearing on Lady. His talented co-conspirators Franco Rossellini and Giulio Questi (Django, Kill!, Death Laid an Egg) helped create a low-key and experimental dream-noir that dragged disparate techniques from the European avant-garde and dumped them in the pulp environs of a murder mystery. In these hands and through these eyes, the urban thriller becomes dilatory, diffuse, and poetic: even Bava did not do this. It would be fifteen years before Bazzoni tried it again, turning the by-then established giallo formula inside out by deploying Storaro’s immaculate visual reach and Balkan’s icy existential hauteur. A logic-shredder, a dream journey man, an aesthetic engineer with a lot of talented friends – Luigi is the epitome of the Italian hack as artiste.

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Le Orme (Luigi Bazzoni, 1975)

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Colour can be used as a language. Unfortunately, today newer filmmakers seem to prefer to tell the audience exactly what’s going on and what everything is about instead of using colour, production design, music, actors’ body language, and camera angles to communicate.
Vittorio Storaro

All sensation is already memory.
Henri Bergson

Luigi Bazzoni’s Le Orme is an opaque oddity; dreamy, dilatory, and yet shot with dynamic precision by Vittorio Storaro (the eye behind The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now). It is all about big things, like memory, madness, identity, reality, but it does not fix or pronounce on any of them. It is not wrapped up in plot or exposition, but unfolds through thin and fragmentary threads, visual clues and tricks, echoes and overlaps. You are not being told anything, as such, or even being given a riddle to solve; instead, you’re presented with moods: disorientation, inexplicable unease, melancholia, pity, alienation, and so forth.

Alice Cespi (Florinda Bolkan) wakes up one morning and has lost three working days; as a consequence, she is suspended from her job as a translator at a scientific academy. Left in Rome, alone with her shattered, shuttered life, she reconstructs missing time: from torn postcards and bits of music, a sedate yellow dress and a florid red wig. Bolkan, that upper class Brazilian bohemian in Italian exile, is superb (of course, as ever, etc.): Alice’s tension and melancholia reinforced by her severe hairstyle and minimalist wardrobe.

She languishes in immaculate isolation, framed by Storaro’s vast, stark visual compositions. Unable to communicate or share with others, on a steady diet of tranquilizers, she avoids everybody except for her psychiatrist and work colleagues. In an endless cycle of stasis and drift, she paces her bare, white apartment, slowly smoking Dunhill cigarettes and sipping espresso, over-looking dusty concrete and motionless cranes. The flat is sparse, without paintings on walls, books on shelves, or magazines lying around; her existence is devoid of personal touches, of personality, of a person. The job she does, she detests: rendering other people’s words in an alien language exemplifies her disconnection from the immediate world. A phone rings, and there is nobody on the other end of the line, so she puts it back down again, like a Helmut Newton dream of motion.

Storaro and Bazzoni render Alice’s existential condition in visual longueurs and slow, low panning shots; stark silhouettes and sharp angles of light; with exact, deliberate pace and discordant, convoluted edits. Rome is austere and intimidating and grand as the camera cuts straight lines across Mussolini-era edifices and post-war International Style blocks, putting her in pitiless perspective. When the film shifts to Turkey, the scenery is transformed but the atmosphere does not change. Baroque and Art Nouveau interiors mix with Islamic minarets and crumbling medieval alleys. The shots and angles remain austere; the space is internalised, as the coast and the city open up lonely, depopulated vistas, an Ottoman Arabesque that melts into limpid, languid seascapes.

She is haunted by dreams/flashbacks of a science fiction movie she watched once called (she says, she thinks) Footprints on the Moon. In her version she is abandoned by a space probe: over the opening credits, she watches in panic, asphyxiating, as it drifts away, into space, going home. Later, she fixes on footprints in moon-dust, the traces and clues of an abandoned course, a lost route, a forgotten way forward. Outer space is conflated with inner space, a deeper, larger landscape: it is more interesting and there is lots of it.

This is, to a degree, a hollow exploration, hyper-stylized existentialism, but it is tighter and more engaging (by dis-engaging) than, say, Resnais or Tarkovsky or some other ponderous shit, because it moves with brisk genre pace and is allowed the luxury of giallo illogic. The effect is poetic and exploratory, disorientating and seductive, having been set free from theory, narrative, resolution, exposition. You a propelled with (but not by) Alice through a vague maze of detail, looking for truth and trying to touch reality, but as she remembers names and details, and the fragments are assembled, reality and sanity begin to fall apart. It ends in rapture and rupture and brutality and cheap surrealism that simply reinforces the final themes: the fragility of identity and the splintering of truth and reality.

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