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July 06, 2005

Gambling City/Almost Human

Gambling City
Sergio Martino - 1974
No Shame DVD

Almost Human
Umberto Lenzi - 1974
No Shame DVD

What I like best about what has happened since the advent of DVDs is that I can see more foreign films and older films than I could when I was dependent on theatrical revivals or television showings. Additionally, I like that I am able to fill in gaps of knowledge of various filmmakers and genres. Conversely, I do sometimes feel certain frustration that while some films are now available, others are not. Nonetheless I feel that the DVD release of various Italian genre stylists is beneficial not only for cultists, particularly of Italian thrillers or gialli, but also for film historians. One can regard the release and critical re-evaluation of Italian thrillers from the 70s as being somewhat analagous to the re-evalution of American film noir films.

Sergio Martino established his reputation with gialli. A contemporary of Dario Argento, Martino worked as an Assistant Director on Mario Bava's The Whip and the Body. In Martino's best moments, he bathes dramatic shots with a prime color, red or green, in the style of Bava. Martino makes use of framing devices and well as positioning characters for dramatic effect.

Gambling City shows Martino taking a break from thrillers to make something lighter. The film follows a professional gambler, Luca, played by Luc Merenda. Luca crosses a casino owner, known as "The President" as well as the casino owner's son, Corrado. Luca runs off with Corrado's girlfriend, Maria Luisa. Luca plays father against son until the son takes over the casino and his father's gang of enforcers.

My favorite moment in Gambling City is during the scene when the son of the casino owner is abandoned by his father's business partners. Martino frames the actor, Corrado Pani, sitting alone at his desk, a small character seen through an open door seen on the left of the screen - a diminished person, isolated, surrounded by vast blackness. An earlier scene shows Luc Merenda, his face partially obscured by a glass room divider, looking at Dayle Haddon from across the casino. We see Haddon as Merenda sees her. We can see but not hear Haddon arguing with Pani.

Gambling City isn't as visually dynamic as Martino's earlier thrillers or his Western, Manaaja. Martino does keep a sure hand on the proceedings so that the action never lags.

* * *

The first time I saw anything by Umberto Lenzi was at showing of Orgasmo at the University of California - Berkeley. The film was shown under the title of Paranoia. While Carroll Baker was the star, I spent most of the time wondering how Lou Castel had gone from making Fists in his Pockets with Marco Bellochio to a film with lesser aspirations. Lenzi is best known for his cannibal movies which have a devoted cult as well as his thrillers. Of the handful of Lenzi films I've seen to date, Almost Human is his strongest achievement.

Almost Human is about a small time thief, Giulio, who attempts to go big time by kidnapping the daughter of a millionaire industrialist. The thief is portrayed by Thomas Milian. As Almost Human was made the year after Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, I had to wonder if Milian had seen that film. Milian's bravura performance seems modeled on Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy. Milian has the same shaggy haircut and a similar manic grin. Giulio is a more psychotic and dangerous version of Johnny Boy. As counterpoint to Milian's nervous energy, we have the expressionless Henry Silva as the detective attempting to make sense of a series of seemingly random murders.

Almost Human was written by Ernesto Gastaldi, the prolific writer frequently associated with Sergio Martino. The film was produced by Luciano Martino, Sergio's older brother for the Dania Film company. Is it coincidental that Lenzi's association with Dania has made Almost Human one of his better movies?

It should be noted that No Shame makes sure that their films are seen correctly and understood not only within the context of the work of the respective filmmakers, but also within the context of Italian film history. In addition to seeing the films in their correct aspect ration, one can choose English or Italian, with optional subtitles. Keep in mind that these films were all shot silently and dubbed later, a traditional practice in Italian filmmaking made necessary with international actors speaking lines in their native language. The interviews with select cast and crew members is sometimes informative, although I got the feeling that Dario Argento is the object of much envy. I especially enjoy the clips of Ernesto Gastaldi. Even if his memory fails him, he comes off as a jolly uncle with funny stories. Gambling City also has a commentary by Luc Merenda that is so casual, this may be the only DVD commentary to be interrupted by a cell phone call. The enclosed booklets are contain information and filmographies for the director and principal star. What I liked about the booklet for Almost Human was the first section placing the film within the context of Italian events following the late 60s, as well as an overview of the Italian film industries peak and decline.

While I can't share the enthusiasm that some people have for Umberto Lenzi, I am intrigued enough to see more films by Sergio Martino. At his best Martino's use of color, composition and montage editing are the work of a genre stylist worthy of more serious evaluation.

Posted by peter at July 6, 2005 03:06 PM


Peter, I'm curious what you've written for "Film Comment", I've been a subscriber for 10 or more years....

Posted by: girish at July 7, 2005 06:54 AM

I wrote the article titled "Timmes at Telluride", about the first Telluride Film Festival for Film Comment in late 1974.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at July 7, 2005 01:39 PM