December 27, 2011


On December 6th, RaroVideo released two films from director Alberto Lattuada on DVD. Relatively unknown in the U.S., he was an eclectic talent who came up under the sway of neorealism, and who later made an uncategorizable series of literary adaptations and bitterly satirical farces. I have asked a Ph.D candidate in Italian Studies at NYU, Alberto Zambenedetti, to help me discuss his work. Mr. Zambenedetti will write about The Overcoat (1952), widely considered his masterpiece, and I will look at Come Have Coffee With Us(1970), one of his late sex comedies.

Alberto Lattuada’s 1952 adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Overcoat (1834) can be considered, together with Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951), one of the very few forays into the Surreal and the Fantastic in Italian postwar film. Iconic screenwriter Cesare Zavattini contributed to both screenplays, and both films express a clear desire to move past Neorealism’s aesthetic and narrative model. In this sense, the story of The Overcoat‘s protagonist, Carmine De Carmine, and his daily struggle for survival in an indifferent if not outright hostile world, resembles De Sica and Zavattini’s Umberto D.(1952). Yet the lofty literary source offers Lattuada the opportunity to crack down on the structures of power and their hypocrisy with a venom and a pessimism of which his contemporaries were not capable. The exquisite ambiguities of Gogol’s philosophical tale find a correlative in the depiction of the bureaucratic apparatus, which has overtones of both Fascism’s militaristic hierarchy and of the Christian Democrats’ misguided appeals to decency and decorum. After all, The Overcoat tells the tale of a victim who comes back from the dead to haunt the society who abused him: what story could be more suited to represent the psyche of a country who lived through over twenty years of dictatorship and then expunged it from its collective consciousness?

Comedian Renato Rascel delivers an interesting and nuanced performance in his first dramatic role, for which he was awarded a Silver Ribbon in 1953 by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. Famous for his singing voice and perfect diction (he is best known in the U.S. for his original song “Arrivederci Roma” and for the film The Seven Hills of Rome, dir. Roy Rowland), the small-framed actor is used by Lattuada mainly for his Chaplinesque pantomime and his distinct appearance, which allow for a contained physical comedy. A meek calligraphist and copyist, De Carmine occupies the lowest rung in the ladder of public servants; he is close enough to the sun to know that it exists, yet he is too far to feel the warmth of its rays. He is the nexus between the starving populace and the new aristocracy of bureaucrats, a self-involved class that turns a deaf ear to the needs of their constituency and basks in the glory of power and wealth. To the protagonist, the fine overcoat represents the dream of social mobility and, perhaps, even the love of Caterina, the town mayor’s young and luscious lover (played by Yvonne Sanson, star of many melodramas directed by Raffaello Mattarazzo).

However, in what is perhaps Lattuada’s major departure from Gogol, De Carmine displays an unfaltering sense of justice and loyalty to the lower classes, themes that were very dear to the eclectic director. De Carmine marvels at the mayor’s absurd spending of public money, and he tries to have him read a plea for a pension on behalf of a disenfranchised neighbor, to no avail. Doors, screens, windows, and hallways are used as devices to keep the two worlds separate, with De Carmine shuttling between them in an ever-growing frenzy that, when he is robbed of his precious overcoat, sentence him to a fever-induced death. Remnants of Lattauda’s neorealist masterpiece Il bandito (1946) can be noticed in the extended ballroom scene that depicts high society as shallow and unsympathetic, as well as in the film’s attention to Pavia’s urban landscape. Absolutely unforgettable is the scene in which De Carmine’s horse-drawn hearse interrupts the pompous mayor’s speech, forcing him to remove his hat and salute the body of the (temporarily) vanquished hero.  –Alberto Zambenedetti


Lattuada ended the 1960s with L’amica (1969), a sex romp about a bourgeois wife cuckolding her husband, and he began the 70s with Come Have Coffee With Us (1970), a sex comedy viewed from the male’s perspective. The man is Emerenziano (Ugo Tognazzi, La Cage aux Folles), a middle-aged accountant seeking “caresses, warmth and comfort” in his dotage in the small town of Luino, on the banks of Lake Maggiore. Introduced adjusting his tie in a mirror, he is a picture of aging vanity, albeit one without many outlets. He is shown living in a rather drab flat, his prized object a copy of Paolo Mantegazza’s “Physiology of Love”, a 19th century book that encourages one to cut through fruit to release sexual urges. Emerenziano has clearly not sown many oats, a fastidious man who clips his cigarettes in half to avoid too much pleasure. But now he has decided to indulge himself, and he targets the Tettamanzi girls, three sisters who had just inherited a great sum of money from their naturalist father. A trio of exaggeratedly ugly sisters (not unlike Cinderella’s), with upturned noses, beehive hairdos and unflattering cloth duds, Emerenziano assumes he’d at least get warmth and comfort from one of them.

Lattuada emphasizes their freakish nature with insert close-ups of their relative deformities, of Tarsilla’s mole, Camilla’s mousy face and twitchy gestures, and Fortunata’s mountainous head of hair. These shots from Emerenziano’s POV are much more about the man’s twisted worldview than the ladies’ desirability – Lattuada appears as a doctor to tend to the ailing Emerenziano, an affliction that is as much psychological as physical.. The girls are housed like their father’s taxidermied owls, a trio of spinsters with little connection the outside world until Emerenziano swaggers in and introduces them to the ways of the flesh. His strategy becomes clear when he creates one healthy apple from three rotten ones in their pantry. For he soon decides to marry Fortunata, but after they return from their honeymoon, he spends time in every sister’s boudoir. The maid dutifully keeps a schedule of Emerenziano’s manic schedule, fulfilling his wish for “caresses” and then some. He lives out all his teenage fantasies, but in an aging man’s body, and his libido is far too voracious for his heart to keep up.

A poson-tipped fable of middle-age delusions, small-town desperation and the dangers of sexual repression, Come Have Coffee With Us finds Lattuada working out some familiar themes in a graceful manner. Never uproarious but always amusing, it’s a solid late entry in Lattuada’s impressive career. Well received upon its original release, it eventually came out in the U.S. in 1973, to a similarly pleased reception. Vincent Canby in the NY Times enthused about Tognazzi’s intricately fussy performance: “The actor is a model of what I can describe only as a thoroughly masculine but dainty self-assurance, whether he is carefully placing a toothpick in an ashtray (after cleaning one ear and one fingernail) or pompously explaining to the three sisters, on an early meeting, how an old war wound has left him with a troublesome (but not incapacitating) deviated rectum.” Presented in an HD transfer from a 35mm negative, the RaroVideo DVD is a superb edition of a morbidly funny Italian comedy.  -R. Emmet Sweeney


August 2, 2011

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A baboon and Santa Claus are witnesses to man’s descent into savagery. In Sands of the Kalahari (1965, out on DVD today from Olive Films), a charter plane crashes in the African desert, and its passengers battle each other (and some observant simians) for survival. Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976, a recent Raro Video DVD release)  finds a couple of pretty boy Dirty Harries gunning down suspects before they have time to commit crimes. Poor Old St. Nick can only grin and bear these assaults on individual freedom. Both films display the brutalizing depths wisecracking civilized types can descend to when they feel above or outside the law.

After the international success of Zulu (1964), director Cy Endfield and actor/producer Stanley Baker reunited in South Africa for Sands of the Kalahari. Endfield, born in Scranton, PA,  had been working in the UK for over a decade after being declared a former Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I discussed his second-to-last Hollywood film, the inflammatory noir The Sound of Fury (1950, aka Try and Get Me), back in February. He used a variety of pseudonyms in the years after he was put on the blacklist, since British producers still wanted U.S. distribution.

Endfield (credited as Charles de la Tour) first worked with Baker on Child in the House (1956), a family drama adapted from the novel by Janet McNeill. They hit it off, and returned with Hell Drivers (where Endfield used his real name for the first time), a taut trucking adventure that established the fatalistic tone of their future collaborations. They continued to elaborate their interest in self-destruction in the thrillers Sea Fury (1958)and Jet Storm (1959) before hitting it big on Zulu.

Like Jet Storm (set on a plane in which a grief-stricken passenger (Richard Attenborough) intends to blow himself up) and ZuluSands of the Kalahari contends with a small group grappling with the prospect of  imminent death. The story was adapted by Endfield from William Mulvihill’s novel of the same name. When a commercial flight is canceled at a Johannesburg airport, a few of the international travelers charter their own plane out: there is the fadingly charismatic pilot Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport); the unfailingly logical, and vaguely Eastern European Dr. Bondrachai (Theodore Bikel); ex-German soldier and monkey lover Grimmelman (Harry Andrews); professional British lady Grace Munkton (Susannah York); functioning alcoholic Bain (Stanley Baker); and the immediately shirtless big-game hunter O’Brien (Stuart Whitman).

The plane runs into a swarm of locusts and crashes into the dunes of the Kalahari desert. After the junky jet explodes, the group is stranded in the middle of the most inhospitable place on earth, with sharp-toothed monkeys monitoring their every move. O’Brien sheds his shirt and takes over, and slowly goes mad Heart of Darkness style, growing obsessed with the absolute power he can maintain in this exotic outpost of humanity. Ms. Munkton swoons over his rippling pectorals, but the other passengers aren’t so impressed, and get picked off one by one. What O’Brien ultimately wants is to dominate nature itself, and when humanity fails to pose a challenge, he opts to wage a war against the baboons.

Endfield takes full advantage of the Panavision frame, using the early urban sequences for centered compositions filled with background action, while the desert sections are unbalanced and emptied out. The opening is in medium-shot, while the desert sequences are in long-shot. As the enormity of their situation dawns upon his characters, Endfield pulls further away. It is a nasty little picture, attuned to the brutality of the scenario more than others of its ilk, including the (quite good) Five Came Back (1939, dir. John Farrow), Desperate Search (1950, dir. Joseph H. Lewis), and Flight of the Phoenix (1965, dir. Robert Aldrich). Endfield said, “The only way to do it was to show the essentialism of survival, which was impossible given censorship rules. Otherwise it seems like ‘Swiss Family Robinson’.” (from Brian Neve’s career spanning interview).

I shudder to think what an uncensored Sands of the Kalahari would look like, because this is pretty raw material. In one queasy sequence, the remaining men club a wounded impala to death with stones, as Endfield frames them in rare close-up with maniacal grimaces on their faces. In another, O’Brien guns down baboons from their mountainside dwellings, and their corpses fall to the ground like a mealy potatoes.

The main conflict is between O’Brien’s hyper-macho Darwinism and the other men’s reluctant egalitarianism. There is no true competitor, as the Doctor is a coward, the German resorts to the violence he disdains, and Bain is brave but a bit of a dolt. Endfield clearly agrees with the milquetoasts, but is fascinated by O’Brien’s animality. Shunning escape, he chooses to live alone in the desert, growing a patchy beard and awaiting the showdown with the primates whose homeland he has invaded. This final battle is gruesome and short, and in the end Endfield pulls away in his longest long shot, until O’Brien is just another dot on the landscape. Nature, as ever, is unperturbed.

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man does not exhibit that kind of formal control, but its tilt-a-whirl frenzy holds its own insane appeal. Directed by Italian exploitation specialist Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust), it’s a near plot-less exercise in gonzo action sequences. Fred (Marc Porel) and Tony (Ray Lovelock – who also sings the Dylan-esque theme song) are model-handsome cops spearheading a special operations force in Rome. These two grinning sociopaths gleefully snap necks of suspects who survive their chases, and resort to torture for small bits of information. They are the exploitation version of Dirty Harry, who at least had motivation for his sundering of the law. These two are simply insane, although they go about it in an amiable cop show manner, as if CSI: Miami’s David Caruso just started choking out schlubs in the interrogation room.

Without characterization or narrative to speak of, the juice here is in the location shooting of the action scenes, which deliver wildly dangerous stunts on the streets of Rome, often shot without permits. The stunner is the opening motorcycle chase, an epic jaunt through the Via del Corso that weaves through traffic, crashes through cafes, thunders on top of cars, and scares an old blind man. Interspersing camera mounted cycle shots with the death-defying stunt-riders, it’s a full kinesthetic assault that matches its other model, The French Connection (1971), for white-knuckle realism. When the action scenes end, it’s just another campy exploitation movie, but when the cameraman hits the ground running once more, it’s wise to start paying attention.


March 29, 2011

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In the third and final short film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Vanquished (I Vinti, 1953), a youthful British strangler walks out of a double bill at The Saffron theater. The headliner is the Esther Williams musical comedy Skirts Ahoy (1952), with Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950) as the “B” picture. Aubrey (played by Peter Reynolds), is the fame-seeking young poet exiting the cinema, ready to commit his so-called perfect crime. But did perky Esther Williams or the avuncular Joel McCrea make him do it? I encourage one and all to stage your own version of this twofer and see if any homicidal rage bubbles up. Please report in the comments. But alas, Antonioni doesn’t answer this pressing question in The Vanquished itself. What is undeniably true is that both The Vanquished and Stars in my Crown both received recent DVD releases, from RaroVideo and the Warner Archive, respectively. It’s a dreamlike bit of capitalist coincidence, and one of those secret joys of cinephilic pursuits.

RaroVideo is a cult Italian DVD label that initiated a North American wing earlier this month, starting out with Fellini’s I Clownsthe Fernando Di Leo Collection and the pretty 1974 horror film The Perfume of the Lady in Black. Today they drop The Vanquished. In the ever-shrinking DVD market, they are an idiosyncratic godsend, plucking high- and low-brow gems from Italian film libraries.

The Vanquished is an omnibus film, containing three short films of teenage rebellion and murder in three different cities: France, Italy and England. Released the same year, 1953, as Marlon Brando’s leather-clad rebellion in The Wild One,  it was partaking of the worldwide paranoia regarding juvenile delinquency that would peak with Rebel Without a Cause two years later. Adapting three real-life crimes, the production was hit with official protests, and severe changes were made to the script before production. It was Antonioni’s second feature, following 1950′s Chronicle of a Love Affair, and without any leverage he had to bow to their demands. Because of imposed re-shoots and other post-production difficulties, The Vanquished was released into theaters months after The Lady Without Camelias, which is often credited as his second film as a director, although it was the third he shot.

The French section was modeled after the “Affaire J3″, in which a young man, Alain Guyader, was killed by his schoolmates during a picnic in the woods near Paris. Google Books has made available an article on the murder in LIFE magazine from June 4th, 1951. Through the years of rationing during and following WWII, “J3″ was the government’s code for cardholders from the ages of 15 to 18. The anonymous writer notes that now, “the term has become the symbol for a tragic story of adolescent intrigue, confusion and murder”, opining on the “fearsome look the trial provided into the curious dream world in which these adolescents lived and played at adult affairs.” That is, they acted like they were in a movie, this time a WWII French Resistance film.

The scandal of it all was that these children were from solidly bourgeois families, so the usual bromides about violence originating in poverty couldn’t be trotted out. This was something new, and newly ascribed to this generation being raised during a world war, inured to bloodshed. They are what the film’s tacked-on introduction describes as the “burnt-out generation”. This group of teens played at being black marketeers and revolutionaries: “When studies seemed unexciting, they created their own excitement, hatching plans to organize a great new Maquis [a rural guerilla bands in the Resistance]  if the Russians would come. They would make a fortune in the black market…and would run arms to the Middle East.” This adolescent cell grew tired of Guyader’s boasts, including his declarations that he was “a man of his times” as well as made up love affairs with other members of the group. Setting up a mock trail, the Maquis declared “he was too vain and would have to die.” They scripted their own drama.

This episode in The Vanquished was the subject of a “defamatory press campaign” and protested by the family members of the “J3″ teens. The French Ministry of Commerce refused to grant an export visa, blocking the transportation of the negative to Italy. Although it eventually got through, France still banned the film until 1963. Antonioni’s handling of the material is anything but exploitative – opting for a talky naturalism, with long-take group shots of the kids joining and breaking-up in endless waves. It skimps on the details of the murder in favor of a disconcerting reverie. The group has already decided to kill, so they spend their time gallivanting through the verdant woods, talking of their lame parents and fickle crushes. It is indebted to neorealism, with its use of real locations and unaffected performance,  but Antonioni’s penchant for intensely psychologized spaces and architecture crops up in the final scene. The murder takes place in the ruins of a castle, reflecting the fractured fairy tales cycling through these embryonic Red Brigadeers’ heads.

The Italian episode was hacked to pieces. The original scenario, as described by Stefania Parigi, was to follow a “hotheaded fascist who sets up his own suicide in such a way that the blame seems to lie with the Communists.” This was based on the story of Achille Billi, a young fascist who was murdered and dumped into the Tiber River. The April 25th, 1949 issue of Life magazine has a photo of the funeral, captioned FASCISM REVIVES. The photo shows an overflowing crowd (credited as over 5,000) giving his coffin the Fascist salute. The producers gutted the scenario, first changing the main character to a violent leftist who bombs an arms depot (this version is presented as an extra on the disc), and then removing politics entirely, requiring re-shoots to change him into a small-time smuggler. The result is a rather ridiculous, neutered scenario – a high schooler ends up  bossing around a grizzled bunch of black marketeers. But it certainly looks stunning, filmed mostly at night in low-light chiaroscuro by Enzo Serafin.

The final section, with our beloved Aubrey, was based on the crime committed by 19 year old Herbert Mills, who strangled an older prostitute in the suburbs of London, “for no apparent reason” (Parigi, liner notes). This section seems to have been left untouched, and in an Antonioni anomaly, is a rather straightforward Hitchcockian mystery. Reminiscent of Robert Walker’s epicene character in Strangers on a Train, Aubrey is after the perverse pleasure of getting away with murder, a decadent Raskolnikov. It becomes clear early on that he is guilty, the question becomes how he did it, and whether he’ll get away with it. Peter Reynolds, playing Aubrey, is a self-deluding delight as the muckracking murderer, who smirks his way to the newspaper as he trumps up publicity for the crime he just “witnessed.” Maybe Aubrey saw Strangers on a bill right before Stars in My Crown, and wanted his own slice of notorious fame and fortune (Antonioni might have had this short in mind during Blowup, with its concluding shot of a tennis match).  J. Hoberman, in his Cold War histories,  would say they were just participating in the violent dream life of nations.

In Stars in My Crown, the dream is of an idealized past. The whole film is a flashback reminiscence of John Kenyon (Dean Stockwell), whose voice-over forthrightly idealizes the small Southern town of Walesburg that he grew up in. Jacques Tourneur famously took a pay cut to direct this modest triumph, and it was the favorite of his films. What is immediately striking is the unreliability of the narration – which is focalized solely through Kenyon’s perspective. In his opening voice-over, he states, “According to the words of the song we are promised a city of gold in the hereafter. I used to think that was a long time to have to wait. But I know now that there is a city of gold right here on Earth for every one of us. The city of our youth.” We can return to our memories of childhood to construct our vision of heaven. The story to follow will be an act of Kenyon’s imagination, his personal Utopia.

Joel McCrea is the Pastor who raises Kenyon, a folksy preacher who can joke and fish as well as read the gospel. He is a man of the world as well as a man of God, and his wife Harriet (Ellen Drew) is equally wise, beautiful in body and soul. McCrea is a jovial oak, laying down roots with every stride of his giant frame, bringing the community around him in the tight medium-shots that Tourneur frames the majority of the film inside. These frames are egalitarian spaces in which any member of the town can take center stage, from the half-wit Chloroform (Arthur Hunnicut) to Uncle Famous (Juano Hernandez), the African-American livestock farmer who has acted as the entire town’s generous godfather.

The relationship between the Pastor and Harriet is one of the most genuinely loving depictions of marriage ever put on film. One scene, and a few gestures, stand out. Kenyon contracts Typhoid, and the adoptive mother and father take turns watching over him. Pastor tells Harriet to take a rest. She goes to her bed, and fights back a sob, wondering aloud if the boy understands how she loves him like her own. McCrea, standing above her, silently lets her work through her emotions. Then, he notices her taking out two hairpins, to get ready for bed, as she continues her monologue. Without a word he takes over this ritual, silently plucking out the remaining pins, and then straightening her hair as it tumbles down. The Pastor’s gestures allow Harriet to allow her entire body to grieve – he has seamlessly taken over the practical rituals of her evening in order to let this take place. It is both comfort and freedom, and an indication of the complex density of their bond.

Antonioni and Tourneur present nightmares and dreams of youth in this impromptu double bill. If you’re feeling frisky, you can also add Tourneur’s Days of Glory (1944), just released by the Warner Archive. Released in the short window of Hollywood pro-Soviet propaganda towards the end of WWII, it presents a bustling anti-Nazi resistance cell in Russia, led by Gregory Peck in his first starring role. Saddled by a ponderous script and the Manichean dictates of the propaganda machine, it’s a minor, frustrating work, but Tourneur still manages some striking scenes of communal living. Managing deep focus in this makeshift hovel, he establishes multiple planes of action as the group oils their guns, boils their soup, and plots for Soviet victory. It’s a canned, albeit elegant, dream of romantic revolutionaries, the flip side of the canned nihilistic violence in THE VANQUISHED. STARS IN MY CROWN is the only fantasy here that is worth believing in.