May 21, 2015

The Jester's Supper

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La cena delle beffe
Alessandro Blasetti - 1942
One 7 Movies Region 0 DVD

There is some dispute as to whether The Jester's Supper was the first or second Italian film to feature a bare-breasted actress. In any case, it was a scene that made waves in 1942, and probably would have still raised eyebrows twenty years later. Clara Calamai cemented her stardom in that brief, eighteen second moment when here blouse is torn off by Amedeo Nazzari. As it turns out in the course of the film, that scene is the cherry on top of other scenes with Calamai dressed in very low cut gown that barely cover her cleavage, as well as a diaphanous nightgown that does nothing to hide her nipples.

As for the film itself, the interest is probably more of a historical bent. The story is based on a 1909 play that takes place in 15th Century Florence. The title might seem misleading to those expecting some guy in a harlequin outfit. A feud between two rivals for the affection of a beautiful woman gets out of hand. Neri and his brother, Gabriello, toss Giannetto into the Arno River after tying him up in a sack. Neri claims Ginerva for himself. Ginerva is the subject of gossip, a commoner whose looks provided an entrance to royal society. The supper in question is hosted by Lorenzo De Medici. Giannetto tricks Neri into appearing as a madman, made worse when he beds the unsuspecting Ginverva who can't tell the difference between lovers in the dark.

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Some contemporary viewers may be put off by this combination of tragedy and sex farce, that seems closer in spirit to the theater of its 15th Century setting than an early 20th Century play. Sem Benelli's play even made it to Broadway, performed in 1919, starring John and Lionel Barrymore. A 1924 operatic version also followed, with a staging done in 1999 by Liliana Cavani.

For the more serious film scholar, this is one of the rare pre-World War II Italian films made available on home video, and with English subtitles. Alessandro Blasetti was a pioneer in Italian cinema, and this was one of his most popular films. The Jester's Supper also provides an opportunity to see Clara Calamai as a star in popular cinema, outside of her better known with Visconti, or as the murderous mother of Dario Argento's Deep Red. The other recognizable name in the cast is Valentina Cortese, eighteen at the time she made this film. Here, Cortese plays a young woman, one of Neri's casual romantic partners, who still loves Neri. Unlike her main competitor, Anna Magnani, Calamai never starred in any English language films. Even without the partial nudity, Clara Calamai reveals enough to make clear why in Italy, she was one of the biggest female stars of her time.

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May 19, 2015

X

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Roger Corman - 1963
KL Classics BD Region A

Along with historian Tim Lucas, who provided a commentary track, and director Joe Dante, who discusses the film in the supplement section, I also have a vivid memory of seeing X theatrically. While I don't recall the exact date, it was sometime in the late Winter or early Spring of 1964. X was playing in a double feature with Jacques Tourneur's Comedy of Terrors at Varsity Theater in Evanston, Illinois. It was the Saturday matinee, and the theater was packed. What I remember best is the second shot of the film, a floating eyeball that looked like it had been ripped out from some unwilling victim, now bobbing around in a clear glass container. The audience, mostly junior high and high school kids, shrieked or laughed or maybe both. I was 12 at the time.

The shriek at the beginning of the film would be matched by the shriek of the audience in the final shot. While we never actually see him do it, Ray Milland rips out his own eye, leaving blood red holes in their place.

I've seen X twice theatrically, plus at least one time on a black and white television broadcast which was no less captivating. And while as an older, and more experienced viewer of film, I notice things the viewer is suppose to overlook, there are other things that my somewhat more sophisticated self also find adding to the more recent visits. Because I was more concerned about the story, I was oblivious to the difference between the second unit shots around Las Vegas, and close-ups of Ray Milland driving furiously on a highway outside of Los Angeles. Likewise, it didn't occur to my 12 year old self that Corman was cutting from establishing shots at an actual amusement park, to scenes filmed on studio sets. Conversely, what I noticed is how the story of Dr. Xavier depicts his decent into a hell of his own making in the settings of the major scenes, from the height of a large, multistory hospital, to the ground level of a carnival side show, to a lonely basement apartment, and finally to a vast, empty desert.

The Roger Corman commentary track is informative regarding the origin of X as originally to be about a jazz musician. Making it about a doctor doing medical research makes more sense. X does make an interesting companion piece to The Trip in that both films are about characters driven to look for some kind of hidden truth. Dr. Xavier in X is hoping to expand what can be perceived by the human eye, while the motivation in The Trip is expansion of human consciousness through LSD.

Tim Lucas finds connectivity through various science fiction stories and films, as well as the work of primary screenwriter Ray Russell. There are brief biographies of several of the cast members, and anecdotes about working with Corman or Ray Milland. One surprising bit of information was learning that 78 year old Allan Dwan had been considered for taking the directorial reigns. Considering the amount of information contained in the seventy-nine minute running time of the film, the Lucas commentary provides ample material for further critical and historical discussion regarding the place of X both as a science fiction film and the discussion of any symbolism, whether intentional or coincidental.

You won't find the rumored alternate ending, because there was no alternate ending. There is a prologue that fortunately was junked, and may have only been used for situations where getting the film closer to the ninety minute mark was required. Does X succeed for those who love this film in spite of the low budget special effects roughly approximating what is seen by Dr. Xavier, or because the special effects hint at things that could only be depicted in more realistic detail with the advent of computer generated effects? I'm not sure there will be any agreement. What I can say, along with others, is that more than fifty years later, and multiple viewings, X continues to be a very watchable movie.

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May 17, 2015

Coffee Break

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Ana Torrent and Ernesto Alterio in Luna's Game (Monica Laguna - 2001)

May 15, 2015

Stay as You Are

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Cosi come sei
Alberto Lattuada - 1978
Cult Epics BD

I have the feeling that even with the small handful of movies now available on home video, Alberto Lattuada will still be stuck with being known as the guy sharing a directorial credit with Federico Fellini on Variety Lights. Even with his far greater number of films, Lattuada had never distinguished himself as a filmmaker in the way that Fellini had, more of a craftsman than artist. Stay as You Are never changed things for Lattuada even though it was probably the closest he came to an international success.

Stay as You Are is mostly famous for thrusting the then eighteen year old Nattassja Kinksi into the spotlight. As the obituary in The Guardian points out, Lattuada had an eye for young female talent. One of the best examples for me was his segment for the omnibus Love in the City, with men falling over each other as eighteen year old Giovanna Ralli walks around Rome. Almost twenty-five years later, Lattuada was able to show what in the past could only be imagined, with scenes of a nude Kinski during the final twenty minutes.

Some of Lattuada's films revolve around men who place themselves in situations that they can not control. The fortune of a poorly paid clerk to purchase an expensive overcoat in The Overcoat leads to his early death when the coat is stolen on a cold winter night. The middle aged office bureaucrat who wins the hearts of three homely, but wealthy, spinsters in Come Have Coffee with Us is reduced to an almost infantile state following an unexpected heart attack, presumably from to much sexual exertion. For Giulio, his dilemma is how to respond to the flirtatious Francesca, who may, or may not, be his daughter from an almost forgotten affair from twenty years ago.

That Giulio is portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni, it's almost a given that the guy is more adept at being a lover than somebody's father or husband. At one point, Giulio is seen reading the novel Homo Faber, about a similar situation with a tragic ending for most of the characters. Unlike author Max Frisch, Lattuada doesn't clarify the relationship, and ends his story on a bittersweet note.

The main selling point of the film is the very young and very naked Nastassja Kinski. Arguably, Lattuada teeters on a very thin line between the tasteful and the prurient. There is also a scene of Kinski stumbling in on a party hosted by her roommate, with all of the guests undressed and in active couplings. Lattuada was sixty-three at the time he made this film, and there is the sense that he was straining to be as contemporary as the newer generation of Italian filmmakers, particularly Bernardo Bertolucci. Not so coincidentally, Stay as You Are was produced by cousin, Giovanni Bertolucci.

The blu-ray has both English and Italian language tracks. I went for the Italian track because even though Ms. Kinski is dubbed in both versions, I like listening to Mastroianni in his own, familiar, voice. A supplemental bonus is the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone.

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May 13, 2015

For the Love of Film - The Film Preservation Blogathon: Spaceways

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Terence Fisher - 1953
Image Entertainment Region 1 DVD

"Space is a cold place to die!" doesn't quite grab your attention like "In space, no one can hear you scream". Back when Spaceways was produced, just the idea of a man traveling by rocket was still sufficiently the stuff of science fiction, the first artificial satellite, the Russian Sputnik still about five years in the future, with Yuri Gagarin making his historic voyage in 1961.

For most of its brief running time, people talk about space travel, but most of the action is earthbound. A coproduction of the low budget Lippert Pictures with Hammer Film Productions, Spaceways is one of several films that had a second string Hollywood star with a primarily British cast. Howard Duff is the American scientist. Stephen Mitchell, who works with a small team on Britain's space program. Also on the team are the boyishly enthusiastic Toby Andrews, the unctuous Philip Crenshaw and the obligatory smart babe of the bunch, Lisa Frank, whose also the exotic foreigner from an unnamed European country. (For those interested, the life of Eva Bartok was more dramatic than any of her films.)

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The scientists attend a party where it has been announced that funding has been approved for more experiments. We first see Stephen's wife, Vanessa, the bored with the scientific chit-chat, her pinched face suggesting that she's doing her best to keep from breathing a nearby fart. Claiming a headache, she leaves the party, followed by Crenshaw. The two make plans to run away together, and are spied upon by Stephen. Prior to going home, Stephen takes a walk with Lisa to her place. They way the two look at each other, it's obvious they would rather knock boots than shake hands. Vanessa later complains that Stephen could be making significantly more money for private industry instead of toiling for the government. As far as Stephen is concerned, he wants to see his current work completed.

Vanessa and Crenshaw later disappear. No one knows where they are, but a certain Dr. Smith suspects that Stephen murdered the lovers, and stuffed their bodies in a rocket that is currently orbiting the earth. There is also a mystery concerning missing rocket fuel. The only way Stephen can hope to clear his name is to retrieve the rocket, and coincidentally be the first man in space.

It's only in the last few minutes that Terence Fisher displays any hint of the style he would bring to the horror films that won him fame. What we have is marginally film noir for the bulk of the first sixty-four minutes, with science fiction talking over for the final ten minutes. Unlike some films from about the same time, the interior of the rocket here is hardly dazzling in its gadgetry, but mostly brutally utilitarian. Those metal chairs don't look comfortable for any kind of travel. The space suits consist of dark plastic jump suits with heavy divers helmets.

Being short of running time and money, Spaceways ends a bit abruptly, and too easily. For a few brief moments, with Stephen and Lisa adrift in orbit, the end of Spaceways could have been the beginning of Gravity.

This entry is part of the For the Love of Film - The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod and Wonders in the Dark. The goal is to raise $10,000 for the preservation of the silent romantic comedy short, Cupid in Quarantine, with online viewing made available through the National Film Preservation Foundation. So get off your, um, duff, and make a donation.

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May 11, 2015

The Evil Eye

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La ragazza che sapeva troppo / The Girl who Knew too Much
Mario Bava - 1963
Kino Classics BD Region A

Was it murder, or was it a dream about a murder? Tim Lucas, in his commentary, mostly taken from his exhaustive book on Mario Bava, lists films and books that had influenced various aspects of this film, also known as The Girl who Knew too Much. Lucas also discusses how Bava had probably influenced Dario Argento. For myself, there is an unintended connection to Lucio Fulci. Bava's "girl", Nora, is first seen as a woman in a lizard's skin, a snakeskin coat. About eight years later, Fulci made A Lizard in a Woman's Skin. Both films are about women who may have confused dreams about murder with real events, and possible drug induced hallucinations. Add to this that both Bava's film and Fulci's were both distributed in the United States by American-International. While the Bava film was retitled The Evil Eye, the initially planned English language title, and that of the Fulci film, retitled Schizoid, indicates the influence of Alfred Hitchcock, primarily has as a point of reference for capturing audience attention.

The new blu-ray provides the ability to see two variations of what is essentially the same movie. The main difference is that the English language version released as The Evil Eye has a few extra minutes of comedy, mostly with with Leticia Roman bumping head first into Rome, and an appearance by Bava, in a photograph, that recalls a similar sight gag in Sullivan's Travels. What makes this something of a challenge to traditional film scholarship is that there is no definitive version as such, but one made primarily for an Italian audience, another for American audiences. The original production was instigated by American-International following the success of Bava's Black Sunday. As was common at the time, the actors performed in their own language, to be dubbed later, so that if one is concerned about which version is in the "correct" language, it would arguably be English.

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It seems fortuitous that Bava's film would star an Italian-American actor, John Saxon, and an Italian born American actress, Leticia Roman, originally Carmine Orrico and Letizia Novarese. There may be a joke about a Saxon and a Roman here. Was Roman cast because of her big, Margaret Keane sized eyes? There are several shots that emphasize those eyes that may not coincidentally remind some of the eyes of Barbara Steele. Roman's eyes look bigger here than they appear in the stills from her other films, as if Bava somehow grafted the eyes of Steele onto an actress who could have easily passed as a California beach bunny. In any event, the casting of the two stars made the film less foreign for American audiences.

In his book, Lucas explains how Eye/Girl was not the first giallo, or even a proto-giallo. What is certain is that the film, a financial failure in Italy, given minimal release elsewhere, has developed greater interest and respect as part of the overall interest in Mario Bava's career. Like other Bava film's the narrative aspects are almost besides the point. The reason to see Eye/Girl is for the fantastic images, of deserted Rome at night, the zig-zag web that Nora creates to trap potential intruders, the ghostly image of Nora reflected on the window of an old fashioned elevator in a seemingly vacant apartment building. Lucas' commentary can be heard along with The Girl who Knew too Much, and if you haven't read his book, be sure to give it a listen. See both versions, decide for yourself if one version is better than the other. Or to put it another way, let the films speak for themselves.

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May 10, 2015

Coffee Break

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Ugo Tognazzi in Come Have Coffee with Us (Alberto Lattuada - 1970)