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Ennio Morricone

Review: Sacco and Vanzetti

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

When challenged that the American and rightwing villains in his State of Siege were too thoroughly villainous and the leftwing revolutionaries too absurdly decent and clean-cut, Costa-Gavras disingenuously replied that he saw nothing terribly wrong in that: why shouldn’t the Left indulge itself with black-and-white entertainments when the Right had been doing so for years? Sacco and Vanzetti can cop the same plea, but it has plenty more to recommend it. John Simon named the film on his 1971 Ten Best List because, he maintained, it dramatically brought to light a reprehensible miscarriage of justice callously perpetrated by officials of the government which ought never be forgotten.

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Seriously Though, What Have You Done to Solange?

Have you heard about Solange?

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) is celebrated by fans and genre historians alike as one of the masterpieces of giallo. An Italian-German coproduction shot largely in England, it’s directed by Massimo Dallamano, who visualized the stark intensity of Sergio Leone’s arid anti-hero epics as cinematographer of A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), and directed salacious adaptations of Devil in the Flesh (1969) and The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970) before turning to giallo.

The international cast includes hunky Italian Fabio Testi (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), German stars Karin Baal (Fassbinder‘s Lili Marleen) as his wife, krimi veteran Joachim Fuchsberger (Dead Eyes of London) as the police detective, Spanish beauty Cristina Galbó (The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) as Testi’s schoolgirl mistress, and American model-turned-actress Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave) as Solange. The lovely and tender score by legendary composer Ennio Morricone adds an eerie elegance and haunting edge to film. All told, it’s one of the most disturbing examples of the genre, and not for the reasons you might assume.

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Review: My Name Is Nobody

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Most people have been writing about My Name Is Nobody as though it were as unequivocally a Sergio Leone film as Once upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, et al.; some reviewers haven’t troubled to mention the existence of Tonino Valerii (who is emphatically given directorial credit twice in the opening titles) while more scrupulous commentators have nodded toward Valerii while acclaiming My Name Is Nobody as “the most producer-directed movie since The Thing.” There’s no mistaking the Leone manner, the Leone themes, and the frequent instances of Leone power and feeling; the protégé has learned the master’s lessons well, and one feels certain he was largely executing Leone’s own detailed plan of the film. I’m sorry I muffed my chance to see Valerii’s own A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die a month or so ago (I loathe drive-ins) because I might have been better prepared to wade in and sort out the fine points of auteurship in the mise-en-scène. There are lapses in the film that mightn’t have occurred—or might have been more decisively compensated for—if Leone’s hand had been at the throttle. But there are also shots, sequences, and literally timeless moments in the movie that do no disservice to the memory of previous Leones—which is to say that My Name Is Nobody contains some of the most extravagantly exciting footage that’s going to appear on movie screens this year.

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Morricone Encomium

[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]

Foreword

I don’t read a note of music, so the language of this article is necessarily interpretive rather than technical. Also, the here-today-gone-tomorrow Duck, You Sucker has thus far eluded my company, so I have recourse only to the first four westerns that Morricone scored for Leone. —RCC

A soundtrack score is rarely significant enough to make or break a film. Generally the least obtrusive music is the most effective in creating mood or building atmosphere—the kind of music the pianists and organists used to improvise to accompany silent movies. If a film score is overly assertive it can do severe damage to a film, as Miklos Rozsa’s did to Hitchcock’s Spellbound, or as most of Maurice Jarre’s post–Lawrence of Arabia scores have done.

With this in mind, it is with the greatest of awe that I express my admiration for the brilliantly assertive yet totally un–self-serving scores that Ennio Morricone has composed for Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” The unique, indefinable atmosphere which Leone’s films create is built in large part by the director’s tremendously personal style of mise-en-scène, shot composition, and montage, to be sure. But it is often Morricone’s music that turns the trick in creating that timeless, haunting aura, and lends an otherworldly, almost religious significance to the action it accompanies.

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Videophiled: Hola ‘Companeros’!

Compañeros (Blue Underground, Blu-ray) is an ironic title, but then as a spaghetti western—a genre steeped in mercenaries and con men and double crosses—it would have to be. Swedish gun runner Yodlaf (Franco Nero), in Mexico in the heat of the revolution to sell his weapons to the highest bidder, and hot-headed Mexican peasant turned revolutionary officer Vasco (Tomas Milian in a beret that evokes Che Guevara) are certainly not compañeros by any stretch of the definition. It’s only good timing that prevents Vasco from killing the blue-eyed stranger, and orders from his gun-shy but glory-hungry General that sends him along on a quest to free the idealistic revolutionary leader Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey) from American captivity at Fort Yuma. They make a great screen team, verbally jabbing and prodding one another along the way even when they are forced to rescue one another (left to their druthers, they’d go on alone). Nero plays the witty, worldly cosmopolitan (and, blue eyes and lightly bleached hair aside, the most Mediterranean Swede in the cinema) and Milian the wily survivor, acting on impulse and lobbing insults to his Swedish partner between paeans to his twinkling blue eyes.

Sergio Corbucci is one of the three great Sergios of the spaghetti western (along with Leone and Sollima) and the director of two of the genre’s classics, Django (1966), which made a star of Franco Nero, and the Great Silence (1968). Compañeros (1970) leans into the political arena that Sollima specialized in, using the political chaos and opportunism of the revolution as a volatile cultural backdrop filled with warring factions and freelance mercenaries, while driving the film with capers and cons and capture and escapes. They cross the border, break a prisoner out of an American Fort, and tangle with a dope smoking bounty hunter with a wooden hand and a loyal falcon named Marsha. Jack Palance plays the laconic mercenary John, puffing on joints and smiling a crooked grin as he lazily springs traps and puts his prisoners to sadistic tortures, and his stoner delivery sends the film into a whole realm of weirdness.

Complicating things even more are the (not always clear) conflicts within the revolution, with the grandstanding General Mongo only in it for personal gain and the idealistic Xantos playing the Gandhi of the Mexican Revolution, a pacifist who preaches non-violence while everyone is trying to kill him. That includes the opportunist Mongo, who needs Xantos for his payday but also finds him a threat to his agenda. Sort of. The details are murky, but that’s hardly a problem for a genre all about betrayals and greed. And yet Corbucci, who helped define the the amoral tone of the genre in Django, develops a streak of idealism that builds through the film until it blossoms as a defining theme without any sense of irony or insincerity. While he may not embrace the pacifism of his inspiration Professor, Corbucci certainly respects his integrity, a virtue not always seen in the genre, and presents it without cynicism. And that is quite a feat in a film with a body-count and a mercenary cast of this magnitude. It’s a wily good time with a rousing finish.

Fernando Rey, Karin Schubert and Tomas Milian

The Blu-ray debut features both the American version and the disc debut of the longer Italian cut (with four minutes of additional footage). Both editions, which have been newly mastered from the original negative, offer the choice of English and Italian language soundtracks (the restored scenes to the Italian cut are only in Italian with English subtitles, making them easy to spot). Image quality is great and the DTS-HD Mono soundtracks have that distinctive spaghetti western sound of studio-recorded dialogue and post-synched library sound effects. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack sounds great.

Carried over from the previous DVD release is commentary by film journalists C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke and the 17-minute 2001 interview featurette “In the Company of Companeros” with interviews with stars Franco Nero and Tomas Milian and composer Ennio Morricone.

More new releases on disc and digital formats at Cinephiled

Review: ‘Le Secret’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Le Secret bears a 1974 copyright and yet it seems much more dated than that. The films of Costa-Gavras notwithstanding, political paranoia thrillers feel so endemically American that this rather nondescript French movie comes across mostly as a by-the-numbers emulation of the U.S. model—just as contemporary French films noirs recall not such honorable homegrown predecessors as Carné–Prévert and Clouzot but rather the classic American noirs of the Forties and Fifties. This guy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, throttles a guard and escapes from this semi-medieval dungeon somewhere in the French night—a half-hour’s drive from Paris, as he and we learn. “They” had been slipping him the old Chinese water torture there, he tells a handily available ladyfriend of short-term acquaintance, because he accidentally learned a secret “they” can’t afford to have anyone know; and now “they,” of course, will be looking for him. OK. By means not narratively disclosed, Trintignant quits Paris and turns up in some woodsy terrain where he hopes to go to ground in a certain shed. Said shed having burned down—or so he is told by a jovial Philippe Noiret he encounters on a hillside—he accepts the shelter of Noiret’s own bucolic retreat for the night, and several ensuing days. The problem posed to Noiret and wife Marlène Jobert, as well as to the audience: is he a paranoiac or just someone who damn well is being persecuted? In either case, which way do they jump next?

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Profundo Argento: “The Cat O’Nine Tales” and “Deep Red”

The Cat O’Nine Tales (Blue Underground)
Deep Red: Uncensored English Version (Blue Underground)

It’s official: Blu-ray has redefined my home repertory schedule. DVD is the format of home video debuts and rarities unearthed, but the Blu-ray release calendar has become my guide for revival screenings of films not seen in years, maybe decades, and sometimes for classics that I never got around to seeing in other forms.

David Hemmings stares down his nightmares in "Deep Red"

Thanks to Blue Underground, Dario Argento’s number has been coming up with some frequency (see my review of Inferno here). This month, two early Argento gialli (that’s plural for giallo) debut on Blu-ray, neither of them among his masterpieces but both showing a young director exploring the possibilities of play within genre filmmaking and perfecting his technical skills and expressive talents. I reviewed the English language versions of each film, in my first viewing of the films since Anchor Bay first released them to VHS at the end of the nineties.

The Cat O’Nine Tales (1971), Argento’s second feature, follows up his directorial debut The Bird With the Crystal Plumage in genre, style and “animal” theme (stretched into a trilogy with Four Flies on Gray Velvet). In Bird, Argento explores, pushes at and plays with the mechanics of suspense and murder mystery spectacle in a psychodrama thriller (an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s “The Screaming Mimi”). Developed with novelist and screenwriter Bryan Edgar Wallace, one of the godfathers of the German “krimi” genre of gruesome body-count murder mysteries, flamboyant killers and creative murders, with stylistic inspiration from Mario Bava’s elegant dances of death. The Cat O’Nine Tales continues down the same twin paths, but this time he also starts to play with the conventions and tropes of the genre, not defying or overturning them, simply bouncing them around with buoyant sense of play as he turns them into opportunities for style.

James Franciscus (under a blonde dye job) is a reporter chasing down a mysterious break-in at a genetics lab, where nothing was apparently stolen, and Karl Malden is a blind man who overhears a conversation that appears to tie in to the mystery. Their meeting is a narrative contrivance to team them up (what reporter rushing to a scoop would take the time to explain what’s going on to a blind bystander?), the hot-shot reporter with all-access to crime scenes and police officials and the retired journalist, blinded years ago, who spends his days caring for an orphan and solving puzzles. Malden comes off as the cheerfully amateur detective of British cozies, smiling as he checks off the clues and bounces ideas off of Franciscus, himself a fairly animated and buoyant presence. Only when the little girl is kidnapped does Malden falter, the fun tipped into danger and the stakes become personal.

There’s nothing unique or daring in this handsome CinemaScope production, and little of the bravura flights of style that will define his later, more flamboyant exercises in color and camera movement and the fine art of murder. Even the spare score by Ennio Morricone looks back to traditional Italian horror, which Argento left behind for the pounding prog rock scores of his subsequent films. But he has a flair for juicing up characters with personality quirk (not subtly or even all that convincingly, but with a certain sense of fun) and he keeps the film moving ahead or bouncing around characters as they dole out the exposition and a mystery that twists and turns with almost arbitrary direction.

Partners in crime solving look for clues in a mausoleum

The beginnings of his trademark style can be glimpsed in the POV sequences of the killer at work, begun with a close-up of the eyes so tight all you see is iris and whites and continuing through the stalking and dispatching of characters intercut with the fragments of murder mosaics, the most obvious evidence of his debt to Hitchcock. The shower scene from Psycho is his touchstone, only Argento’s mini-symphonies of murder aren’t about fooling viewers into thinking they’ve seen more than is actually onscreen. He uses the discreet shots to foreground the assault on the flesh and the shedding of blood and impress audiences with his spectacle. A body pushed in front of a speeding train is punctuated with a close-up of the engine colliding with the skull and the freefall of another victim is just the prologue to the desperate grasping for purchase before the crush of impact, complete with the crumple of the body. It’s not exactly sadistic—Argento is like Malden’s character in the movie, delighting in the design and execution of his set pieces like a puzzle—and he doesn’t revel in their suffering. It’s all rather dispassionate, a matter of cinematic engineering.

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Review: Salò

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Updating the setting of de Sade’s novel, Pasolini’s Salò proposes that in the final months of fascist rule in northern Italy a quartet of authorities (a noble, an administrator, a banker, and a monsignor) sign a pact, intermarry with one another’s daughters to ensure solidarity, systematically capture the most attractive children of their political enemies, and spirit them away to a country manor house, there to subject them to unspeakable indignities in their unrestrained pursuit of perverse pleasure, from masturbation and sodomy, through coprophagia, to torture and death. Though the power of the film’s images might be easily achieved, simply by evoking the inherent shock of the acts depicted, nevertheless, power there is, in abundance, and Salò does not slip easily (or ever) out of one’s mind. Is the violent reaction against Salò that has occurred in this country a reaction against the acts that it depicts, against the (patently faked) depictions themselves, or against the fact of that depiction, the very idea that someone should make a movie about such things?

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Keeping Score – Scary Music: the Sequel

For last Halloween, I offered a list of 13 movie scores that I believe stand out as landmarks in the in the history of scary movie music. I got some comments from a few readers who were disappointed that some of their own favorite fright film scores and composers weren’t represented. Well, there’s a lot more great stuff out there, and so, with Friday the 13th upon us, here’s a second set of 13.

princeofdarkness
John Carpenter and Alan Howarth: "Prince of Darkness"

13. Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, 1987.

This remarkable film and its score came in for new and long-delayed recognition in 2008 with the release of a two-disc recording of the Carpenter-Howarth score, probably the best of their many collaborations. There’s an insistent underbeat throughout the film, the advance of relentless evil, over which Carpenter and Howarth weave motifs of traditional Gothic sound in non-traditional electronic instrumentation.

12. Orson Welles’s Great Mysteries, John Barry, 1973.

For a little-watched and little-remembered television anthology series, John Barry created one of his best themes, an infectious melody with a distinctively creepy, almost threatening reach.

11. Cannibal Holocaust, Riz Ortolani, 1980.

Ortolani, who remains best known for “More,” the popular theme tune from Mondo Cane (1962), had a stock in trade of putting music to the graphic horrors of Italian shockumentary, and the ensuing cannibal cycle of film-making that assayed previously unimagined depths of gore and cruelty. The notorious Cannibal Holocaust boasts a score that features one pretty melody, several jaunty passages set to a Latin beat, and several savage musical embodiments of horror and revulsion.

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Keeping Score – “Ennio Morricone: The Complete Edition”

Fifteen CDs is a big set—and a bargain for $99.95. But in what sense is GDM’s big holiday release a “Complete Edition”? Obviously it’s not everything the Maestro has written; that couldn’t be done in ten times as many discs.

emcompleteedThe avowed effort here is, for the first time in a single collection, to offer a sampling of Ennio Morricone’s work in every one of the specialized fields of musical composition in which he has worked. The set is organized accordingly: Music for Cinema (9 discs); Music for Television (2 discs); and one disc each covering Contemporary Classical Music, Orchestral Arrangements, Hit Song Arrangements, and Original Songs.

If you bought GDM’s previous extravaganza, Ennio Morricone: The Super Gold Edition (GDM Music srl, 0168292GDM; 6 discs, avail. at $45-85), you may well wonder whether the cinema music portion of this new collection replaces that previous set. No, it doesn’t. While the vast majority of the cuts on the previous set are also included in the present one, there are several instances in which a film represented in the earlier box set is represented this time by a different excerpt, or none at all. So if you buy the new box, there’s reason to hang on to the earlier one as well.

Like the earlier box, this new set’s CDs are all in matching format, featuring the same superb pencil portrait of Morricone at mid-age; unlike the earlier box, the new one has color-coded the CDs, so one can always grab the right sleeve to consult the contents of the current disc. A big difference between the new set and the old one is that the works on the new set are presented in chronological order, enabling you to trace the evolution of the Morricone touch from the late ’50s right through to last year, spotting patterns, repetitions, variations, and increasingly complex and inventive stylistic gestures.

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