So far in my Top 20 list of essential Italian cult movies I’ve looked at ‘The Trojan War’, ‘Maciste in Hell’, ‘Sons of Thunder’, ‘Blood and Black Lace’, ‘The Castle of the Living Dead’, ‘The Last Man on Earth’, ‘The Wild Wild Planet’, ‘Django’, ‘Special Mission Lady Chaplin’ and ‘Django Kill!’. Here are 5 more classics that illustrate Cinema Italiano’s diversity and imagination.
‘Fellini Satyricon’ (Federico Fellini, 1969)
In complete contrast to Italy’s ‘sword and sandal’ epics and mythological costume adventures, Fellini’s ode to ancient Rome and Roman society is one of the most realistic, abeit heavily stylised, depictions of the historical era. It certainly captures the time’s debauchery and violence, and like Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’, it has a ring of truth in its settings and characters. Fellini’s narrative is episodic, shambolic and almost nonexistent, as only fragments of Petronius’ source text remain. Encolpio (Martin Potter) and Ascilto (Hiram Keller), and their lover Gitone (Max Born), drift through a strange Roman landscape. Their encounters with various members of Roman society are startling, vivid and memorable. When it was shot in 1968-69, financed by producer Alberto Grimaldi, it was the biggest production to be filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome since ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), with 89 interior and exterior sets. ‘Fellini Satyricon’ was released internationally promoted by the tagline: ‘Rome. Before Christ. After Fellini’.
There’s a good 2.35:1 widescreen print of this available – in Italian with English subtitles – from MGM.
‘They Call me Trinity’ (Enzo Barboni, 1970)
Terence Hill and Bud Spencer (pictured at the top of this post) made three popular westerns with Giuseppe Colizzi – ‘God Forgives…I Don’t’ (1967 – aka ‘Blood River’), ‘Ace High’ (1968 – aka ‘Revenge at El Paso’) and ‘Boot Hill’ (1969) – before their first comedy western hit, ‘They Call Me Trinity’ (1970). It was concocted by writer-director Enzo Barboni as ‘E.B. Clucher’, the former cinematographer of spaghettis like ‘Django’ and ‘Django, Prepare a Coffin’. Hill played bean-eating drifter Trinity, a fast-drawing layabout who ass-drags around on a travois and Spencer was his half-brother Bambino, an ursine outlaw who is quick-on-the-draw but slow-on-the-uptake. This parody of ‘Rio Bravo’ and ‘The Magnificent Seven’ had the duo helping a community of pacifist Mormons, led by Brother Tobias (Dan Sturkie), against land-grabber Major Harrison (Farley Granger), who covets their pasture for his horses. Franco Micalizzi’s laid-back theme song, crooned by David King, has shown up recently in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’. An even more successful sequel followed in 1971, fittingly called ‘Trinity is Still My Name’.
The ‘Trinities’ have been released several times on videotape and DVD. The Nouveaux Pictures double bill is as good as any, but it’s currently out of print
Note, most prints of ‘Trinity is Still My Name’ are cut. In the fullscreen print that played on British TV in the 1980s on BBC1, several scenes play longer than in the DVD editions.
‘Milan Calibre 9’ (Fernando Di Leo, 1972)
Fernando Di Leo’s crime classic sees Ugo Piazza, aka ‘Potatohead’ (Gastone Moschin) released from prison after a three-year stretch. Money-laundering Godfather ‘The Mikado’ (Lionel Stander) wants to know where Ugo’s hidden the $300,000 he has stole from the mob, but despite beatings and torture Ugo remains silent. The hoods on his trail include Mario Adorf as greasy, sadistic blabbermouth Rocco Musco. Based on the novel by Giorgio Scerbanenco, Milan Calibre 9 was photographed by Franco Villa and boasts a powerful score by Luis Enrique Bacalov and prog-rock band Osanna.
‘Milan Calibre 9’ is available in the Region One ‘Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection’ boxed set, with his other movies: ‘Manhunt’ (with Woody Strode and Henry Silva as hitmen), ‘The Boss’ (with Silva again) and ‘Rulers of the City’ (starring Jack Palance, this is the uncut version of ‘Mister Scarface’). All of these are well worth seeing, though they fall short of ‘Milan Calibre 9’ for sheer class.
‘Deep Red’ (Dario Argento, 1975)
A favourite among Argento’s fans, ‘Deep Red’ – in its uncut Italian edition – is the longest, most convoluted and most brutally violent Italian giallo. Jazz pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) witnesses the murder of mind reader Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril). In contrast to the tenuous links and scant, implausible explanations of most gialli, Deep Red is very well constructed. Marc teams up with reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s partner), to solve the mystery and the film’s now-legendary twist ending is perhaps the finest in cinema. There are some incredibly violent murders in this movie, involving elevators, meat cleavers, crashing glass, a scalding bathtub, a hook, a mantelpiece and a head-squashing. These are convincingly staged special effects by Germano Natali and Carlo Rambaldi, while the killer’s gloved hands are actually Argento himself. The thumping score is by Goblin and the film was released as ‘Suspiria 2’ in Japan.
The original Italian version is called ‘Profondo rosso’ and runs 126 minutes. The abridged US cut, titled ‘Deep Red’, ran a tighter 98 minutes. Both are available on this DVD:
‘Get Mean’ (Ferdinando Baldi, 1976)
This is the fourth film where Tony Anthony played The Stranger, a wandering chancer inspired by Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’. The first film was ‘A Stranger in Town’ (1966), also known as ‘For a Dollars in the Teeth’, which is a remake of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’. The sequel ‘The Stranger Returns’, owed much to ‘For a Few Dollars More’, while ‘The Silent Stranger’ (1969) packed the Stranger off to Japan. Ferdinando Baldi’s ‘Get Mean’ is by far the most outlandish of the quartet, with the gunslinger travelling from the USA to Spain, to escort Princess Elizabeth Maria De Burgos (Diana Lorys) to safety. The film was shot amid the beautiful castles in Granada and the deserts of Almeria, including the fortress built for the Lee Van Cleef western ‘El Condor’. In this imaginative pseudo-western, the Stranger is caught between turbaned Moors and Barbarian invaders (who resemble Vikings), led by chieftain Diego (Raf Baldassarre) and hunchbacked Sombra (Lloyd Battista, who co-scripted the movie).
Unfortunately, this hugely enjoyable adventure, which anticipates Anthony’s even crazier ‘Treasure of the Four Crowns’ and the 3D mayhem of ‘Comin’ at Ya!’, remains elusive for an official DVD release. It was issued in the UK on videotape in the 1980s by VCL VIDEO. Rene Hogguer at CineCity has a widescreen print on DVD-R
You can read more about all these films in my book ‘Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult’, which is out now from I.B. Tauris.