Monthly Archives: September 2011

Roma Therapy 3

This week on my tour through Italy’s cinema, three monochrome classics: a gothic horror starring a 1960s scream queen, an unsettling psychological melodrama that earned its young star the tag ‘the new James Dean’ and the greatest biblical film ever made.

Castle of Blood (Antonio Margheriti, 1964)

Castle of BloodOne of Margheriti’s three gothic horrors from 1963-64 – the others are: The Virgin of Nuremberg and The Long Hair of Death – this is also known as La danza macabra and The Castle of Terror. It sees Alan Foster (Georges Riviere), a foolhardy Times journalist, taking Edgar Allan Poe up on a tavern wager, which results in Foster spending the ‘Night of the Dead’ in haunted Blackwood Castle. Classic cobwebby stuff from Margheriti and Steele has never been better, as she makes a spectre of herself as mysterious Elisabeth Blackwood.

It’s available on Region 1 import in the UK and in the US there’s the uncut version on DVD, as well as the more widely seen cut version.

Fists in the Pocket (Marcello Bellocchio, 1965)

Fists in the PocketWriter-director Bellocchio’s debut film made waves internationally in 1965, with the press trumpeting its star, Lou Castel, as a rebel successor to James Dean, but viewed today Castel’s petulant performance owes more to the young Brando. This strange and unique drama depicts a dysfunctional family living in a secluded provincial villa, where lies and selfish deceit give way murder. Castel’s performance is riveting, Bellocchio’s visuals by turns poetic and disturbing, and there’s a eerie, avant-garde score from Ennio Morricone.

Again, in the UK it’s only available on DVD in the UK on import or on videotape and in the US, it’s available on DVD.

The Gospel According to St Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)

The Gospel According to St. MatthewThis is the antithesis of Hollywood’s showbiz treatment of the life of the Messiah. For a biblical film made by an atheist, this is a moving, powerful discourse on the live of Jesus Christ (as played by Spanish economics student Enrique Irazoqui). Pasolini shot his low-key religious epic on location in Italy, in Lazio, Calabria, Mount Etna and most memorably at the rock-hewn hovels of the Sassi di Matera, in Basilicata, which played Pasolini’s Bethlehem. Shot in black and white by Tonino Delli Colli, the film also features a memorable score that includes music by Luis Enriquez Bacalov, Bach’s ‘Matthew’s Passion’ and the spiritual ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’, performed by Odetta.

This has been released on DVD in the UK and in the US, and as part of a Pasolini boxed set, which also includes Accattone and Hawks and Sparrows.

Castle of Blood, Fists in the Pocket, The Gospel According to St Matthew and other films mentioned here are discussed in detail in my book, Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult, published by I.B. Tauris.

I also wrote a profile of Barbara Steele entitled ‘Scream Queen of the Italian Scene: The Woman Who Haunted Herself’ in issue #11 of Cinema Retro, back issues of which can be ordered here.

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Roma Therapy 2

This week, three more essential Italian films: a gothic horror, a period costumer and a tragic story in a fabulous setting. 

The Terrible Secret of Dr HichcockThe Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock (Freda, 1962)

Freda’s Victorian ‘necromance’ is Barbara Steele’s finest gothic. This Edgar Allan Poe-influenced chiller has a great performance by Robert Flemyng as Dr Bernard Hichcock, who accidentally murders his wife, Margaretha. When he returns 12 years later, with his second wife Cynthia (Steele), Margaretha’s spirit returns also, to seek revenge.

In the UK, the uncut 84 minute version was released by Stablecane Home Video in 1985 and unbelievably this remains the best version of the film available.

Freda’s sequel, The Ghost (1963), is widely available in the US.

The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock is harder to find. In fact in the US, it’s only out on videotape, cut, under an alternative title

The LeopardThe Leopard (Visconti, 1963)

Billed at the time as Europe’s answer to Gone with the Wind, The Leopard was a costly failure on its international release, but is now highly regarded. Burt Lancaster starred as the Sicilian Prince of Salina, who finds amid changing times of revolution and reform that the ‘new rich’ are rising and displacing the old aristocracy:. The movie fields a fantastic cast of famous and soon-to-be-famous names including Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Paolo Stoppa, Serge Reggiani, Romolo Valli, Pierre Clémenti, Ida Galli, Giuliano Gemma and Terence Hill (under his real name, Mario Girotti). There’s also a wonderful score by Nino Rota, magnificent Sicilian landscapes and architecture photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno in Super Technirama-70, and a justly-famous lavish ball staged at Palazzo Gangi in Palermo at the film’s climax.

The uncut Italian language version is available in the UK on DVD and on Blu-ray.

However, my favourite version of the film is the abridged English language release (with Lancaster and Cardinale dubbing their own voices) which runs 161 minutes and is available in the US on this excellent Criterion Edition, which includes documentaries, audio commentary and the uncut Italian print of the film in 2.21:1 Super Technirama.

It’s also out on Blu-ray in the US.

ContemptContempt (Godard, 1963)

Based on Alberto Moravia’s novel A Ghost at Noon (Il Disprezzo), Jean-Luc Godard’s tragedy depicts international filmmakers at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, as they attempt to plan and shoot Homer’s The Odyssey. German director Fritz Lang plays himself, while Jack Palance is superbly cast as greedy American producer Jerry Prokosh. Georgia Moll is Prokosh’s translator, Francesca, and Michel Piccoli is playwright Paul Javal, who following the success of his script for Totò against Hercules is hired to adapt Homer. Trapped between Paul and Jerry – in Rome and later at The Odyssey’s shooting location on Capri – is Paul’s beautiful French wife, Camille, played by Brigitte Bardot in the performance of her career. The epically mournful music – a candidate for my favourite film score of all time – is by Georges Delerue.

Contempt is available in the UK under its French title, Le Mepris on DVD and Blu-ray.

And in the US on DVD and Blu-ray.

This CD contains 6 tracks from Georges Delerue’s score.

Read more about The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, The Leopard and Contempt in my book, Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult.

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Una Giornata in Spiaggia (A Day at the Beach)

Tall Acre Beach

Tall Acre Beach: After the Apocalypse © Howard Hughes 2011

I need to go to the beach at least once a month. To see the sea, to check it’s still there. In the North West of England we’re fortunate to have the North Wales coast and the Wirral within easy drive, both great coastlines, with some excellent beaches for walking or sitting. There’s still something special in the ritual of going to the beach. Gritty sandwiches for lunch, those weird windbreaks that are essentially blankets threaded on poles, the screeching hark of gulls, the distant sigh of waves flopping onto the shore. The hubbub of noise on a busy, sunny day and the family left on the beach, long after everyone else has gone home, frantically digging, because some little tyke has buried daddy’s car keys in the sand, but can’t remember where.

There have been many famous film moments that take place on beaches, from the finned terror of Jaws and the chess game with Death in The Seventh Seal, to the apocalyptic endings of Kiss Me Deadly and Planet of the Apes, the amphibious landing in Saving Private Ryan and the Lancaster-Kerr clinch in From Here to Eternity. The most-photographed beach in film history lies to the west of Rome, on Anzio Cape, though most people won’t have even heard of it. It’s called Tor Caldara and has appeared in literally scores of A and B-movies over the years, including mythical epics such as Hercules and Hercules Unchained, sci-fi movies such as The Day the Sky Exploded and westerns, including Django.

Tor Caldara Now

Tor Caldara Nature Reserve, Anzio Cape, Italy.

Reserva naturale regionale Tor Caldara – Tor Caldara Nature Reserve – is 44 hectares of beach, an inlet, a sandy clearing and a stream surrounded by woodland oaks, south of Anzio. It also boasts unusual fauna and flora, and is a protected WWF site. There’s a circular medieval watchtower on the headland and the Nature Reserve features sulphurous springs – in some films distinctive yellow strata can be seen in the landscape – which when they are bubbling give the area the smell of rotten eggs. It was one of the beaches used by the Allies during Operation Shingle – the Anzio Landings in Italy in January 1944 – and since then it’s seen plenty of action, both as a popular beauty spot and, especially in the 1960s, as a filming location.

Scenes featuring Tor Caldara can be spotted in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew and Medea, and it’s the beach with a defensive German bunker that is assaulted in the low-budget WWII movie Hell in Normandy. It was particularly popular with makers of sword and sandal epics and features in, or is the principle setting for, Hercules Conquers Atlantis, Maciste against the Vampire, Mole Men against the Son of Hercules, Perseus the Invincible, The Giant of Marathon, The Giants of Rome and most prominently in Hercules against the Moon Men. It was later a useful ‘desert’ (with the sea and headland kept well out of shot) in many, many spaghetti westerns, including Texas Adios, Django Shoots First, Vengeance, This Man Can’t Die, Adios Gringo and Johnny Hamlet.

Whenever Italian filmmakers needed a modest stretch of desert and woodland or cliffs and a beach close to their Rome studios, Tor Caldara was the go-to location. The site was particularly popular with directors Mario Bava and Sergio Corbucci. Bava featured scenes at the beach and inlet in Danger: Diabolik, Hercules in the Centre of the Earth (aka Hercules in the Haunted World), the Viking movies Erik the Conqueror and Knives of the Avenger, the horror titles The Whip and the Body, Five Dolls for an August Moon and Shock and extensively in the alleged comedy western Roy Colt & Winchester Jack. Corbucci used the area in a variety of genre films, including the swashbuckler The Man Who Laughs and the Roman epic, Duel of the Titans (aka Romulus and Remus). It also cropped up in several of his westerns, including Ringo and his Golden Pistol (aka Johnny Oro), Navajo Joe and The Hellbenders.  

Perhaps the most famous scene shot at Tor Caldara was the opening title sequence to Corbucci’s Django in the winter of 1965-66, with Franco Nero (starring as the eponymous hero) dragging a coffin through the mud and pouring rain. You’d never guess the Mediterranean is only a few hundred yards away, over that rise.

Tor Caldara was also used for Django’s later scenes at the rope bridge – including the infamous moment when Nero has his hands mangled by horses’ hooves – and for the final shootout amid the crosses of desolate Tombstone cemetery.

To read more about the varied films directed by Corbucci and Bava, and many other films discussed here, check out Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult published by I.B. Tauris.

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Roma Therapy

With the publication of my book Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult in the US last week, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the book’s key films, which are both representative of Italian cinema’s golden age from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, and of its two camps of ‘arthouse’ and ‘popular’ cinema. In the introduction to Cinema Italiano, I include two Top 20 lists of Italian films no collection should be without. Over the next few weeks I’ll be intermittently looking at essential movies of the era, in their best available releases for English language collectors.

La dolce vita

La dolce vita (Fellini, 1960)

Federico Fellini’s decadent masterpiece is a time capsule of Roma at the turn of the decade and depicts the uneasy relationship between the rich and famous on the Via Veneto and those who thrive on reporting their exploits, the ever-circling journalists and paparazzi photographers (this film coined the word ‘paparazzi’). La dolce vita also contains an iconic moment in cinema: American movie starlet Sylvia Rank (Anita Ekberg) takes a moonlight dip in the Trevi fountain. The diverse cast includes Anouk Aimee, Yvonne Furneaux, Lex Barker, Alain Cuny, Magali Noel, Jacques Sernas, Nadia Grey, Riccardo Garrone, Audrey McDonald, Ida Galli, Adriano Celentano, future director Giulio Questi and 1960s Velvet Underground singer, Nico. The memorable score was composed by Nino Rota.

This UK DVD release is ‘Digitally Remastered from a Restored Print’ and looks great in widescreen.

Rota’s score is now available on CD.

In the US there is a Region 1 two-disc edition.

And an impressive Deluxe Collector’s Edition, loaded with documentaries, Fellini short films, interviews etc

The Mask of SatanThe Mask of Satan (Bava, 1960)

Known variously as Black Sunday (in the US) and Revenge of the Vampire (in the UK), Mario Bava’s gothic established his name as a purveyor of stylish chills, in this, his only monochrome gothic horror. Its success ensured Bava continued in a similar vein, with the addition of vivid colour cinematography, in Black Sabbath (1963), The Whip and the Body (1963), Kill…Baby, Kill! (1966) and Baron Blood (1972), but many of his fans still rate this is his greatest work. It also made a star of Wirral-born British actress Barbara Steele, who enjoyed a six-year career in Italy in such horror fare.

The Mask of Satan is available as part of the Mario Bava Collection, a superb boxed set which includes Black Sabbath (Italian version), The Girl Who Kew Too Much (Italian version), Knives of the Avenger (English and Italian versions) and Kill, Baby…Kill! (English and Italian versions), plus enlightening intros by Alan Jones and audio commentaries by Bava biographer Tim Lucas

In the US, the Mario Bava Collection Volume 1 includes the same five films.

Black Sunday is also available individually.

Hercules Conquers AtlantisHercules Conquers Atlantis (Cottafavi, 1961)

Vittorio Cottafavi’s mythological adventure starring British bodybuilding champion Reg Park ranks as a highpoint in the peplum genre, surpassing even Steve Reeves’s Herculean efforts. The simple plot whisks Hercules to the lost continent of Atlantis, ruled by Queen Antinea (Fay Spain) in the best tradition of Greek myth. The cast includes sword and sandal regulars Ettore Manni, Luciano Marin and Salvatore Funari, plus guest stars Ivo Garrani, Enrico Maria Salerno and Gian Maria Volonté.

The film is widely available in Region 1 format, in its truncated, rescored US version, as Hercules and the Captive Women on a double bill with The Giant of Metropolis, a sci-fi peplum starring Gordon Mitchell.

It’s also available in the Region 1 ‘Hercules’ boxed set that also includes Hercules, Hercules the Avenger, Mole Men Against the Son of Hercules, Hercules and the Black Pirate, Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops and others.

It’s worth seeking out a widescreen DVD print from Europe, as the cinematography looks tremendous in Technicolor and 70mm Super Technirama.

The only uncut version of the film currently available in the UK in English is on videotape.

The same ‘Hercules’ collection is available in the US.

Hercules and the Captive Women is also available in the US on a double bill with Hercules, Prisoner of Evil, an entertaining horror-peplum also starring Reg Park.

To read more about La dolce vita, The Mask of Satan, Hercules Conquers Atlantis and other films discussed here, Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult, published by I.B. Tauris, is out now.

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