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June 01, 2011

Oasis of Fear

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Dirty Pictures/Un Posto Ideale per Uccidere
Umberto Lenzi - 1971
Shameless Films Region 0 DVD

Perhaps the most shocking thing about Umberto Lenzi's 1971 film is that it is simultaneously one of his better films, as well as one of his least known works. This is a more traditional thriller with a greater emphasis on the play between the three main characters, but the film works as a kind of period piece, a summing up of the end of the hippie era of the late Sixties. As it turned out, in doing some research, I found that this was a troubled production, with a major cast change needed right before filming began, and that it is a film that Lenzi made with many compromises from his original vision.

One of the key parts of the film is the MG convertible driven around Europe by the toothy and attractive couple played by Ray Lovelock and Ornella Muti. The car is sunshine yellow, decorated by some big cartoony flowers. Near the end of the film, the car is painted black, and yes, that made me think of the old Rolling Stones song. The painting of the car has dramatic motivation, but it also serves as a visual compliment to a story about the end of any sense of optimism these lovers have, however false it might be.

Lovelock and Muti portray two itinerant hippies who get by financially by smuggling pornography. Maybe this was something unique to Europe, but apparently there was a market for recordings of people engaged in sex, kind of like the song "Je t'aime . . . mon non plus", only without the music, or Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's attempts at singing. Without any money, or anything to sell, Lovelock takes to shooting photos of Muti to scrape up a few lira when the two are adrift near Rome. Out of gas, the two take refuge at a very large house, described as an oasis by Muti. The sole resident of this house is a high strung woman who at first attempts to get rid of these two drifters, but then decides to make them her house guests.

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The woman of the house is nervous for some very good reasons that are eventually revealed. But what may actually be one of the bigger twists in this film is that she is played by Irene Pappas in the same year as she starred in a film more typically associated with the Greek actress, The Trojan Women. Even the most acclaimed Greek thespian needs a break from Eurpides, Pappas had the opportunity to play the kind of role that in a Hollywood film might have been taken by Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck. Like those actresses, Pappas is attractive not based on conventional notions of beauty but more by the sheer force of her presence. If the casting of Pappas seems unusual, I was surprised to read that she was the last minute replacement for Anna Moffo. Definitely a subject for further research is that Moffo, known primarily as a star of opera and one of the great voices of her time, appeared in some Italian genre films in the beginning of the Seventies, working with directors Tonino Valerii and Michele Lupo. If for no other reason, Oasis of Fear is worth seeing Irene Pappas in a marked departure from her usual film roles.

The eye candy is provided by Ornella Muti, only 16 years old at the time, and in her second movie. Most of the time Muti is seen wearing some highly cut hot pants, providing the viewers with some titillation when she bends forward. Lenzi provides a bit of an in-joke by having one man taking an eyeful of Muti played by Tinto Brass, director of films that often focus on women's rears, one film appropriately titled Cheeky.

Lenzi plays with then current idea of almost anything British being conflated with a notion of being hip, both Ray Lovelock's character being part British, the use of the MG, and Lovelock wearing a Union Jack shirt. Lovelock and Muti present themselves to Pappas as murderous desperadoes, and Muti even writes the word "pigs" in very large letters on a mirror, with catsup, as if to assure Pappas that she and Lovelock are only pretending to be dangerous hippies like those of the Manson family.

With the film now forty years old, some elements might actually seem less dated now then they might have at the time of release. The best parts of Bruno Lauzi score are the jazz inflected passages with the scat singing. Alfio Contini, the cinematographer who coincidentally also filmed Irene Pappas in The Trojan Women, has fun using special lenses to create multiple images as well as some creative frames within frames. Lenzi has expressed his feelings about the film in this interview. The DVD that Shameless Films put together from various elements also provides some evidence of how this film was neglected and nearly lost. Oasis of Fear is hardly the first film that is appreciated more by fans and critics than by its filmmaker.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 1, 2011 07:40 AM