April 25, 2018

All the Colours of Sergio Martino

all the colours of sergio.jpg

Kat Ellinger - 2018
Arrow Books

At the time that this blog was in its infancy, a new DVD label specializing in Italian films generously put my on the screeners list. The first DVDs received were of two films by Sergio Martino, Gambling City and Almost Human. The films were my simultaneous introductions to Italian crime films and the work of Martino. I have since seen several other films by Martino, both through the now defunct NoShame label, as well as other sources. And while Sergio Martino has made films in several genres, I would suggest that he is rightly best known for his forays into giallo, often with films starring Edwige Fenech.

Not quite all the colors are here. Kat Ellinger's book might be said to be a portrait in broad strokes. There is some detail regarding a handful of films, usually going over the basic plot, with notes on the main cast. The book probably works best as providing a general overview on this journeyman filmmaker. Sources of information include interviews and Martino's own writings. We're provided a bit of his family background and early work prior to directing, with chapters mostly divided into types of films made over the course of several decades. Fenech also has one chapter devoted to her work with Martino, while a final chapter discusses some of the films made more Italian television.

The book is designed primarily for English language viewers, with a list of films that have been made available on DVD and/or Blu-ray for the English language market. Where Ellinger is strongest is in discussing the state of Italian cinema at the time certain films were made, and how Martino reacted to changes within the film industry. As far as the films go, while I like the gialli with Fenech, there are films like Mountain of the Cannibal God which are better left to the hard-core completists. What is missing here is any sense of Sergio Martino as a visual stylist, distinguishing him from such peers as Umberto Lenzi or Enzo Castellari.

April 23, 2018

Two Films by Duccio Tessari

ringo blu.jpg

A Pistol for Ringo
Duccio Tessari -1965

The Return of Ringo
Duccio Tessari - 1965
Arrow Video BD Regions A/B

My introduction to Duccio Tessari was in the mid-1970s with two of his crime films. The first, released in the US as No Way Out starred Alain Delon as a hitman forced to do one last job. The other, made a year later, was Three Tough Guys. Dino De Laurentiis was producing English language films with a combination of American and European actors, with Tesseri at the helm of this entertaining thriller featuring Isaac Hayes, Fred Williamson and Lino Ventura as the trio in question. No Way Out had some stylistic flourishes that made me more intrigued about Tessari's other work.

It was through reading Christopher Frayling's books on Sergio Leone and Italian westerns that I first learned that Tessari had an uncredited hand in the screenplay of A Fistful of Dollars. The connection between the two preceded that film, with both assisting the writing and production of The Last Days of Pompeii in 1959, and both also among the eight writers on Sergio Corbucci's Duel of the Titans (1961). Because of the delayed release, and general ignorance of trends in Italian genre filmmaking, stateside viewers were unaware that A Fistful of Dollars was one of several westerns produced at the same time, usually with Italian directors working in Spain with a multi-national cast. A Pistol for Ringo, produced in late 1964, was released in the US in November 1966, almost three months before US audiences were introduced to the man with no name.

Tessari's films feature essentially much of the same cast, but with two different stories, different locations, and two very different Ringos. In the first film, Ringo, also known as Angel Face, acts as the conduit between the townspeople and the bandits who have robbed the bank. His services don't come cheap as he negotiates a higher percentage of the loot, depending on which side he is ultimately assisting. Tessari's Ringo here is the opposite of Clint Eastwood's character, well-dressed, loquacious, clean-shaven. He is introduced playing hopscotch before gunning down a quartet that was after him. Tesseri makes use of Giuliano Gemma's charm and athletic ability - Gemma was a stunt man and does his own stunts here. What really impresses is the amount of visual detail Tessari crams into a shot, often with his actors moving in and out of the frame with the camera following the action. A medium shot of actress Nieves Navarro has her with her back against a window. Looking through the window, onto the street, one can see some activity in the background. When the bandits are eating dinner at the house of the town's patriarch, one of the bandits can be seen on the side still chewing on a big slice of meat still outside of his mouth. In this way, Tessari makes me think of Richard Lester, where he will have the main characters placed prominently within the frame, but the viewer needs to glance to the sides to pick up other bits of business.

I'm not even sure if Gemma's character is ever called Ringo in The Return of Ringo. Taking place just months after the end of the American Civil War, Gemma plays a Union soldier returning to his small Texas town. The story is a variation of The Odyssey and the original script even had Odyssey as part of the title. A more serious film than the first, the town is virtually empty of street activity, and in a perpetual dust storm. The screenplay by Tessari with genre stylist Fernando DI Leo, has the unusual racial component of having the town taken over by a gang of well dressed Mexicans who have reclaimed the area as part of Mexico, making the Anglo residents second-class citizens. While not as visually stylized, the second film is notable for the complex traveling shots, as well as some unexpected religious imagery.

The blu-ray includes interviews from 2008 and 2009 with actress Lorella de Luca, Tesseri's wife, and star Giuliano Gemma. Western film historians Henry Parke and Courtney Joyner provide commentary tracks on both films, placing both within the context of genre filmmaking in Italy in the 1960s. There is also a discussion on the Ringo films by the ubiquitous Tony Rayns.

April 22, 2018

Coffee Break

MY_OLD_LADY.jpg
Kevin Kline and Dominque Pinon in My Old Lady (Israel Horowitz - 2014)

April 20, 2018

A Violent Life

A Violent Life.jpg

Une Vie Violente
Thierry De Peretti - 2017
Icarus Films Region 1 DVD

Thierry De Peretti uses an unusual visual strategy for filming his main character, the 27 year old Stephane, played by actor Jean Michelangeli. Most of the time, Stephane is not seen clearly. His face is in the shadows. His back is to the camera. There are only a couple of times when the camera is focused on Michelangeli, always from a distance, in the sunlight. The most sustained view is an extended lateral tracking shot of Stephane, walking along the sidewalk, fully certain of his sense of sense and his impending fate.

A Violent Life is De Peretti's second feature, and again takes place in Corsica. His debut feature, Les Apaches was about a quartet of young men of Moroccan descent involved in small time theft that escalates to an ultimately meaningless tragedy within the group. De Peretti returns to Corsica and the more recent past of the country, where simultaneous to factions wanting different degrees of independence from France, also saw violence between rival groups. The film opens with titles giving a brief overview of the historic context to the story.

De Peretti keeps his distance visually through most of the film employing full or medium shots of his characters. There is a sense of detachment to those scenes other filmmakers would usually emphasize for their dramatic qualities. The camera is a distant observer to an early scene with two men sitting in the front seat of a car, each shot at close range by two other mean, with one pouring gasoline on the car and lighting it on fire. Similarly, when Stephane's group of nationalist activists ignite bombs around the city of Bastia, we see a full shot of the main city, with the sight and sound of explosions at various points, while the camera remains as if a passive observer.

As De Peretti is himself from Corsica, one might interpret the visual distancing as a way of providing a counter-balance to that which might considered personal. The major portion of the film takes place in 1997, when the filmmaker was the same age as his main character. At this time, there is very little about De Peretti in English. There is a quote in which he describes A Violent Life as being about a "bruised generation" of which he is a part. From a French interview, De Peretti has stated that wanted, " . . . to give an account, to recall to the memory some atypical and representative paths of the people of my generation. That of this young nationalist militant, Nicolas Montigny, who was killed in Bastia in 2001 and whose character of A Violent Life is inspired, is perhaps one of the most brilliant. He was a young man of his time but who evolved in a fairly conservative environment, the Corsican nationalist movement of the late 90s, I liked this contradiction."

April 18, 2018

Ruby Gentry

ruby gentry pasion.jpg

King Vidor - 1952
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Considering that Duel in the Sun was retitled "Lust in the Dust", and that there are some obvious similarities to that film, I'm surprised that Ruby Gentry wasn't renamed "Romp in the Swamp". Familiarity, plus a modest budget and under ninety-minute running time helped make this reunion of Vidor and Jennifer Jones a more profitable venture than the 1946 epic. This time, Jones was tussling in the dirt with Charlton Heston, a character as thoughtless as the one played by Gregory Peck, but without Peck's wicked charm.

As Ruby, Jones is first seen in the distance, standing somewhat provocatively in a doorway, wearing a body hugging shirt and jeans. The town's new, youngish doctor, taking a gander at the fabled woman, is told, "Don't let it shake you, Doc. It's only anatomy." Jennifer Jones wearing a bullet bra is almost enough to distract from her now looking about a decade too old for her role. Much of Jones' career has been based on playing characters younger than her real age, and she even appears as the 16 year old Ruby in a flashback. Those kind of concerns disappear the moment Jones scratches Heston's face rather than shrug off an unwanted pat on the rear.

Even if the story of class division in a small Southern town, and a woman "from the wrong side of the tracks" may strike contemporary viewers as archaic, Ruby Gentry might well be reevaluated, at least in part, for the depiction of one woman's agency. Ruby is the only major female character. She has a love/hate relationship with Boake, a would-be entrepreneur who sees Ruby only in discrete liaisons before trading love for money. The other two female characters, the wife of businessman Jim Gentry, and the socialite, Tracy, are valued for the social standing within the community. Ruby, living with her backwoods family, is valued only for her beauty, but is otherwise considered as someone who needs to remember her place. Ruby is subjected to various cruelties by the town following her marriage to the newly widowed Jim Gentry, and the aftermath of Jim's accidental death. When Ruby gets her revenge, it's beyond the comprehension of Boake. Within the context of when the film was made, Ruby has to be punished, and you have to wonder why, after realizing the extent of her wealth, she even wants to stay in a town where she is openly disliked. But there is brief pleasure for Ruby and the audience when the town's movers and shakers get their comeuppance.

Among the best visual moments are the reunion of Ruby and Boake, with Charlton Heston's face illuminated by a flashlight, following the voice of Jennifer Jones. Later, the two drive along the beach, sitting on the car seats, Heston singing along to the radio, while the car loses control and careens into the water. Later, something of a visual end note to the scene of Heston's face seen by flashlight, Heston enters the bedroom of Jones, his face in close-up, lit by an overhead light that is turned off. That the film was shot in black and white is especially an advantage in the climax, taking place in a studio set swamp made more otherworldly with its shroud of fog.

April 16, 2018

Enigma Rosso

EnigmaRosso.jpg

Red Rings of Fear / Rings of Fear / Trauma / Virgin Killer
Alberto Negrin - 1978
Scorpion Releasing BD Region A

With six credited writers on the screenplay, I would think at least one of them was familiar with Agatha Christie. Keep in mind that before giallo was associated with a film genre, it was a literary genre consisting of Italian paperbacks of English and American mysteries. Among the more prominent authors was Christie. I bring her up because a significant part of Enigma Rosso appears to be inspired by one of Christie's books. I will not mention the title because it could more easily be a spoiler for Negrin's film, but I would have been unaware of the similarity had I not seen a recent film adaptation.

Among those with a hand in the screenplay were Franco Ferrini, just beginning his career which would include writing credits on several films by Dario Argento, German actor Peter Berling, who as a writer contributed to a couple of Italian crime thrillers, and director Negrin. Also listed was Massimo Dallamano, who had planned to make this film the followup to his previous films about high school girls involved with sex and murder. Dallamano died in a car accident before Enigma Rosso was produced. One can only speculate on how different a film we might have had based on his previous work. This was television director Alberto Negriin's first and only theatrical film.

The discovery of a sexually violated high school girl's body wrapped in plastic, unsuccessfully disposed of by a river, leads to an investigation of the girls three friends at an exclusive boarding school. As most people who love Italian genre films know, it's not the story that's important, but how the story is told. Giallo films, at least those that are most revered, are known for their visual style. Any visual flourishes here are few and far between. While this is purely subjective, Negrin seems unable to distinguish between the erotic and the exploitive, with the camera lingering longer than needed on the girls taking a shower, including those who have no narrative function. Worse is the cross-cutting between one girl's pain from the insertion of an oversized dildo, and shots of forceps while another girl is getting an abortion. Not that young women are the only victims in this film. What happens to a dog shouldn't happen to a dog.

On the plus side, the casually amoral detective played by Fabio Testi forces a confession out of an effete Jack Taylor by taking him on a roller coaster ride. One of the nicer moments is of Testi, lounging on his bed, with his two pet cats crawling over him. A reference to a 17th Century poem by John Donne provides a welcome literary tweak.

Overall, Enigma Rosso is a film best appreciated by genre completists. The blu-ray here is of the film in its correct widescreen aspect ratio, with a choice of Italian with English subtitles or English language dubbing. This was a European co-production with cast from Italy, Spain and Germany. The commentary track by Nathaniel Thompson keeps track of most of the main actors and the history of the production.

April 15, 2018

Coffee Break

A_WALK_AMONG_THE_TOMBSTONES.jpg
Liam Neeson in A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank - 2014)