Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Horror

‘Death’ Walks Twice – Two films by Luciano Ercoli

Nieves Navarro in ‘Death Walks at Midnight’

Death walks twice in Luciano Ercoli’s giallo match set Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972), a pair of films connected not by story or character but by genre, style and creative collaborators. Both films are written by Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahjn (a.k.a May) Velasco and star Spanish actress Nieves Navarro (under the screen name Susan Scott) and leading man Simón Andreu, a team first brought together for Ercoli’s directorial debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970). Navarro’s history stretches back even further, appearing in spaghetti westerns, spy movies and even a Toto comedy produced by Ercoli and his partner Alberto Pugliese in the sixties. High Heels was only Ercoli’s second film as director. He proved to be a quick study.

In classic giallo style, it opens on an attention-grabbing set piece: a masked figure with a big knife stalks and stabs a man on a train, but the real object of his hunt is missing. The victim is—or rather, was—a notorious jewel thief, and the police immediately pay a call on the dead man’s daughter Nicole, a celebrity stripper in Paris. So does the killer, who terrorizes her with a knife and the threat of brutal sexual violence unless she hands over the jewels from a recent heist. She hadn’t a clue as to where her estranged father stashed his loot, but neither the police nor the killer believe her. As for her hot-tempered boyfriend Michel, we’re not exactly sure what he believes. He’s an opportunist kept in high style by Nicole, a situation that tends to bring out the resentment of the ne’er-do-well. The setting may be France but his attitude is pure Italian machismo, slapping Nicole around to establish alpha-male dominance while also living off her earnings. That makes him the prime suspect but certainly not the only one.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors

“The Lickerish Quartet” – Radley Metzger’s Arthouse Erotica on Blu-ray

The line between serious art-house cinema and erotica has often been a little blurred, especially when it came to American companies that, in the 1960s and early 1970s, sought out European imports with a “classy” approach to skin and sexuality, from Brigitte Bardot romps to freewheeling explorations of the sexual revolution in films like I, A Woman and I Am Curious (Yellow). “It’s not pornography, it’s art,” was the implicit argument, even if it was the sex that the exhibitors marketed.

Radley Metzger knew the form well. Before making his success as a director, he imported sexy European releases through his company Audubon and would dub, recut and sometimes even add footage to t hem. When he embarked on directing his own erotic films, his model remained the continental class of European films, with its visual elegance, social sophistication and artful photography, rather than the exploitive energy of American nudies and drive-in exploitations. And he chose to shoot his films in Europe, where he could secure lavish locations for his productions at a relative bargain and cast experienced, attractive performers who weren’t shy about undressing for the camera or engaging in (tastefully) erotic scenes.

The Lickerish Quartet (Cult Epics) was the first of Metzger’s films branded with the X-rating (even though it features no explicit or hardcore footage) because of its nudity and sexuality. It’s also his most conceptually ambitious and intellectually challenging film and, by his own admission, his most personal. It signals its ambitions from the opening quote from Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” (“All this present reality of yours is fated to seem mere illusion tomorrow”) and then plunges us into the games of a family of jaded aristocrats. Metzger cuts Pirandello’s cast down to four: the sarcastic man of villa (Frank Wolff), his wife (Erika Remberg), and her son (Paolo Turco), a mannered intellectual constantly mocked by his step-father. (The fourth arrives later.) They have no names, fitting for a film where identity becomes so fluid.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

The Mafia Worlds of Fernando Di Leo

Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection (RaroVideo)

Caliber 9 (aka Milano Calibro 9) (1972)
The Italian Connection (aka La Mala Ordina) (1972)
The Boss (aka Il Boss and Wipeout!) (1973)
Rulers of the City (aka Il padrone della citta and Mr. Scarface) (1976)

Caliber 9 (1972), the earliest film in the Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection quartet of Italian gangster pictures, opens on a scene like something out of a spy thriller—packages passed from hand to hand until the trade-off in the subway, and then the swaps back until the new package is brought back home—but quickly descends into a sequence of startling brutality, all the more brutal because the characters who are systematically tortured and murdered (blown up by dynamite in a cave in the hills, like something out of a perverse melodrama) are not guilty of the crimes they are suspected of. They are simply expendable.

The debut mob movie from writer/director Fernando Di Leo, a veteran screenwriter of spaghetti westerns who came to Caliber 9 (1972) after directing a handful of giallo and sexploitation pictures, establishes the sensibility of his gangster films to come: a hard, unfeeling brutality, a pitiless expediency and an understanding of who is expendable, who is untouchable, and what happens when those rules are broken, as they invariably, inevitably are. This set limns the boundaries of the Italian mafia movie in four rough, tough, pitiless films of greed, ambition, revenge, corruption and the lie of the criminal code.

These are hard, stripped down, lean narratives, where the complicated webs of alliances and betrayals are laid out with clean storytelling lines of force and set in motion with a pitiless momentum. Not that they move at a machine-gun pace, but the plots and schemes tumble out of the control of everyone involved and the reverberations of every attack—success or failure—has consequences that ripple through the underworld.

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