The 53rd Cannes Film Festival opened with a gala extravaganza whose selection struck many as prodigiously ironic — especially if they caught the flick at a morning press show, when Tom Stoppard’s high-flying dialogue and Ennio Morricone’s once-upon-a-time-in-the-17th-century music had to fight the noise from the drills and hammers readying the Palais for the postfilm Louis XIV–style blowout that evening. Here was a jaw-droppingly lavish movie about the jaw-droppingly lavish steps taken to keep “the Sun King” adequately wined, dined, and entertained over a three-day visit, late in April of 1671, to a country château whose owner, the Prince de Condé, couldn’t even afford to pay the local merchants. Moreover, it was the English-language film rendering of one of French history’s most peculiar episodes, with France’s premier incarnator of French national heroes, former bad boy Gérard Depardieu, gamely trading mots anglais with the likes of Uma Thurman, Tim Roth, and Timothy Spall. And if you’ve got room for one more dislocation, consider that Roland Joffé, the director honored with this opening-night selection, whiled away the ’90s cooking such turkeys as City of Joy, The Scarlet Letter, and the never-released Goodbye Lover.
I was enamored of Ennio Morricone before I heard a note of his music. My father, like many others, loved westerns, and perhaps even more loved passing their stories down to his son, filling the boy’s head with adventures and derring-do that, in those days before home video, might luckily be stumbled upon someday, surrounding such ads as a local TV station could garner on a weekend afternoon. And when it came time for the tale of the Man with No Name (many names, as it turned out: Joe, Manco, Blondie), my father, like many others then and since, would punctuate his telling. Raising his hands to his lips—one curled to an open-fisted trumpet, the other waving to indicate (more visually than audibly) the odd tremolo of the original—and displaying the glint that comes to the eye of a good man recounting wickedness, my father would intone three times, in a hypnotic rise and fall: Wah-WAH-waaahh.
In the opening ten minutes of Mission to Mars, we receive all the mandatory backstory of the typical modern Hollywood movie: relationships are explicitly spelled out in the dialogue, a bond between a father and son (never again referred to) is invoked, personal histories are described with a minimum of subtlety. Director Brian De Palma, who has often been bored by this sort of thing in his movies, barely makes an effort here. A couple of longish Steadycam shots, at an astronaut party on the eve of a Mars expedition, represent an attempt to jazz things up — albeit rather pale in the light of the pyrotechnics of the opening of De Palma’s Snake Eyes. The dialogue is rock bottom, EXPOSITION writ large and crammed into every available mouth. Houston, we’ve got a problem.
The Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore picked up the best foreign film Oscar in 1989 with Cinema Paradiso, his widely-beloved ode to a movie theater in his native Sicily. This year, Tornatore is positioned to make another run at the Oscar. His new one, Malena, has already picked up a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign film, announced last week. It’s another period piece set in small-town Sicily, a time and place beautifully re-created. And, again like Paradiso, we see the story through the eyes of a boy.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
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–LawrenceofArabia 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.
A Pistol for Ringo/The Return of Ringo: Two Films by Dessario Tessari (Arrow, Blu-ray) A Fistful of Dynamite (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray)
Duccio Tessari is not one of the directors known for spaghetti westerns. In fact, he only directed two in his long and successful career, both with Giuliano Gemma (billed as Montgomery Wood) playing against the mercenary expectations of the defining spaghetti western anti-hero. Both make their American home video debut as Blu-ray double feature.
In A Pistol for Ringo (Italy, 1965), Gemma is a wily gunfighter known to all as Angel Face who is released from jail to infiltrate a gang of Mexican bank robbers holding a rancher’s family hostage in their manor home, which they’ve guarded like fortress. Sancho (Fernando Sancho) plays the jolly bandit king who acts like he’d prefer to let everyone live and then has his men drop anyone who gets out of line, but he isn’t shy about executing his hostages as the stand-off drags on, and he targets the lowly Mexican laborers, hardly the actions of the Robin Hood he pretends to be.
Tessario was an uncredited writer on A Fistful of Dollars and the high body count, ruthless killers, double crosses and calculated ambushes seem to be informed, if not outright inspired, by Leone’s film. But while Ringo appears to be a classic heartless mercenary bidding up his services, he turns out to be more of a lovable rogue with a soft spot for women and kids and a loyalty to the good guys.
[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.
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.
Sure, giallo is notorious for its gruesome displays of bodies (mostly young, female, and scantily clad) sliced, stabbed, hacked, crushed, skewered, and eviscerated, often executed as elaborately choreographed set pieces of grotesque poetry, sometimes simply crude and grotesque. In terms of explicit violent spectacle, What Have You Done to Solange? is restrained compared to the most extreme examples of the genre (I’m looking at you, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi), and compared to the delirious dances of death from Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Dallamano is downright discreet. And yet it is far more unsettling and transgressive than those more explicit spectacles.
On the one hand, What Have You Done to Solange? comes right out of the krimi-inspired plots of a mysterious masked killer hunting down victims and leaving their rent bodies on display to taunt the cops and terrorize the community, with a side of salacious nudity out of the schoolgirl films of Germany and the swinging cheerleader and student nurse films of the U.S. On the other, it is about a killer targeting high school girls and murdering them with a sexual assault out of the Jack the Ripper school of hateful misogyny. Even in the aggressively incorrect sexual politics of the genre, you can’t show that on screen. I don’t know if it is even to Dallamano’s credit that he manages to make abundantly clear the nature of the crime without clinical illustration or gory spectacle, but clarity he achieves when the investigating detective pulls out a B&W crime scene photo with the hilt of a knife clearly jutting out from between the legs of a young victim and a doctor displays an X-ray of a victim’s torso that leaves nothing to the imagination.
Our prime suspect is also our protagonist, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi), an Italian physical education teacher in an exclusive British girl’s school. He’s married to a schoolteacher (Karin Baal, introduced as a chilly, severe figure) and sleeping with a student (Cristina Galbó), though the film takes pains to assure us that she is 18 so it’s okay, wink wink, nudge nudge. Testi is the dreamboat teacher that the female students all moon over and the smarmy authority figure who takes his pick of his admirers and he manages to be both magnetic and questionable, especially given his unnatural interest in the first murder scene. It seems more than simple idle curiosity the way he slips through the police tape for a gander at the corpse. (Just an idle observation: for a mere gym teacher he has unprecedented access to crime scenes.) The growing suspicions of Enrico send him on his own investigation with his wife at his side. Baal, initially presented with hard lighting and unflattering hairstyles, is softened with warmer colors, literally letting her hair down to show their growing reconnection. Their mystery-solving partnership is better than marriage counseling, it turns out, and before you know it his adultery is forgiven. An easy out, you might say, but it offers hope and reconciliation in a genre that rarely has either.
As for Solange, her name isn’t even mentioned until the film is half over. But unlike so many gialli which reference hit movies and channel trends with arbitrary (and sometime interchangeable) titles, her identity becomes a mystery of its own and the titular question is key to the murders.
Dallamano stacks up the genre conventions. One character has violent flashes of the murders, something between supernatural premonition and buried traumatic memory (complete with a sickly inventive bit of stylistic ingenuity involving a murder, a nightmare, and a whip-pan transition). There are obligatory shower scenes (complete with a peeping tom more pervy than menacing) next to imagery of Catholic repression and guilt. In one flashback involving an illegal abortion, the scene transforms from shared act of rebellion to grotesque assault, an act of sadism and sexual violation rather than a medical procedure. The filmmakers may have set the film in Britain but the illegal back-alley abortion are purely Italian, as is the Catholic morality. The cliquishness and sexual adventurism of the girls can be seen as an act of defiance, and their “crime” is only a crime in such an oppressive culture. Giallo historian Michael MacKenzie puts the film in a small subgenre of “child gialli,” though unlike such films as Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) or A Whisper in the Dark (1976), these “children” are also sexually active and the objects of salacious interest. It takes the arrival of a mourning parent to remind us that they are indeed someone’s child.
What makes What Have You Done to Solange? so troubling is that you can’t dismiss it as simple, unthinking exploitation. Sure it has plot holes big enough to trap the elephant in the room, but it is unusual and surprising and perversely compelling, with a disturbed twist that gives the salacious and sick predations a psychological grounding. This is not violence sexualized but an angry, vicious assault upon the sexuality of the victims, which gives the film a weird, resonant pay-off. It’s partly what has elevated to the film to classic status among giallo aficionados. You’ve got to have something special to stand out in a genre defined by the gothic grace and dark delirium of Mario Bava, the surreal beauty of Dario Argento, and the nightmare worlds of Lucio Fulci. Solange is exploitation to be sure, but Dallamano doesn’t fetishize or stylize the violence as spectacle. Rather, his film reverberates with a fear of female sexuality and mourning over the loss of innocence. That’s not to say Dallamano transcends the conventions of the genre, but he certainly complicates them.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Most people have been writing about My NameIsNobody as though it were as unequivocally a Sergio Leone film as Onceupon aTimein 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 MyNameIs Nobody as “the most producer-directed movie since TheThing.” 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 AReason toLive, 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 MyNameIsNobody contains some of the most extravagantly exciting footage that’s going to appear on movie screens this year.
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.
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.