Film Club April: The White Sheik

It’s eight forty-five on Wednesday 31st March and I’m finally sitting down to write about Fellini’s THE WHITE SHEIK. And by the way, the April Impossible Film Quiz will appear tomorrow morning.

The movie starts with a blast of Nino Rota. “This music?” asks Fiona. “They reused it?” I explain that Nino Rota’s various Fellini scores all sound like circus music but that this isn’t the theme from EIGHT AND A HALF. If you have a collected Fellini scores album (I have two or three), they do tend to blur together. Which isn’t intended as a knock. If you ever go to the Cannes Film Festival you absolutely must have this music on your MP3 player. The first time I was there I was lucky enough to find a cassette for sale for 30 francs in the market place, and the connection was cemented.

But this is the first ever Fellini-Rota collaboration, and thus momentous. Rota’s death in 1979 tore a hole in Fellini’s screen world, although it’s nice to see his later, post-Rota films garnering more appreciation now than they did at the time of release.

It’s amazing the way this film prefigures the rest of Fellini’s career, while still remaining a modest comedy with no great pretensions. The concern with low-grade showbiz activity, already introduced in the co-directed VARIETY LIGHTS, which will culminate in GINGER AND FRED (Berlusconi-era TV is the only form of showbiz not to be looked upon kindly by Fellini), is already present. We get traveling shots past Roman fountains and monuments, which will eventually make up about ten minutes of ROMA. We get a tracking shot past a man asleep in bed, which is reiterated four or five times at the close of I VITELLONI (Fellini’s first hit, which rescued his career after this movie tanked). Somebody says, “…and the ship sails on.” And we get Giulietta Masina as Cabiria, who will famously return in her own movie.

Vittorio DeSica, speaking of his matinee idol days, said he was so handsome that women would leave their husbands on their honeymoons and seek him out. So either DeSica saw this movie and borrowed the idea, or he said this in the 50s and Fellini swiped the notion for his screenplay (co-authored with regular collabs Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano, plus Antonioni). Wanda (Brunella Bovo — whom Fiona calls “The Italian Jessica Harper”) ditches her pompous and controlling new spouse (Leopoldo Trieste, popping his eyes like Mantan Moreland) in order to meet her beloved White Sheik, star of the fumetti.

Alberto Sordi is fantastically pasty and flaccid as the Sheik, Fernando Rivolli. I assumed this was a Fellini joke, where the Valentino figure is a grotesque, but Sordi did play some straight leading man roles (as in I TRE VOLTI) without any apparent irony, so maybe I’m wrong, and he was considered some kind of catch.  His tight trousers expose the proportions of his thighs, like overstuffed sausages, to unappetizing effect. And his arse is a colossus. But I think Fellini is on top of this — as a good cartoonist, he tends to reveal character through appearance (leading to later accusations of Manicheanism). So the fact that Sordi’s sleazy actor is a sleazy actor is obvious to us long before Wanda realizes it, and that’s OK.

The movie follows two parallel lines, with Wanda’s adventure with Sordi and his crew intercut with Trieste’s efforts to conceal her absence from his family. Through his comical misery, Trieste gradually gains a bit of sympathy, having started as an insufferable prig (and not being the most prepossessing fellow). Wanda gets sympathy mainly by being sweet and cute, and by the romantic and essentially innocent nature of her quest.

All the supporting players are starry-wonderful, like the dyspeptic policeman who considers Trieste crazy, and the hotel manager who keeps trying to interest him in postcards.

For those of you watching the Optimum Releasing Region 2 DVD — isn’t the sound quality terrible? Every time there’s quiet dialogue or music it sounds as if it’s simultaneously underwater and on fire. And yet the louder stuff sounds OK — I suspect the intervention of incorrectly calibrated digital technology, but I’m no expert. Maybe the film needs restoration — or maybe Optimum’s notoriously slack quality control is playing up again (if you’re ever searching for a truncated cut of a celebrated film, however obscure the mutilated version, the chances are Optimum will have released it.)

I made a point of looking at THE SHEIK and SON OF THE SHEIK too, to see if Fellini actually drew anything specific from them, and in fact, the much more sophisticated SOTS (with a credit for “turbulent music” and production design by William Cameron Menzies) has one composition which does strongly resemble a key shot in Fellini’s movie, at what Fiona called “the world’s most pathetic suicide attempt,” when Wanda throws herself into the Tiber but picks an unfortunately shallow spot, her sitting position recalls a shot of Vilma Banky which I’m unfortunately unable to screen-grab.

The fumetti makers are of course a film crew in all but name, and probably a bit more elaborate in their set-up than any real photo-strip creators (I certainly can’t imagine the artists of Jackie magazine having such an infrastructure). The fast montage of stills being taken — with no apparent story discernible, just a pop-art collage of faux-twenties romantic exotica — is the cinematic high point of the movie, as well as the only but with any relationship to Antonioni, although it’s ten times more Felliniesque. Actually, the failed suicide recalls Antonioni’s episode of AMORE IN CITTA, released the following year, but only very dimly.

(There’s a lovely story about Orson Welles shooting DON QUIXOTE in Italy, while simultaneously directing his own scenes in DAVID AND GOLIATH. Leading his crew on donkeys up a weird rocky promontory, Welles was not in the least dismayed to find a fumetti crew already set up at the summit, right in the path of his shot. These denizens of an inferior form of art were apparently beneath the range of Welles’s lofty perceptions, so he carried on setting up as if they weren’t there — and by the time he was set up, they’d duly gone.)

Despite the humour of Fellini’s work, and his past as co-proprietor of the Funny Face Shop, selling caricatures to American servicemen (one customer, Sam Fuller, wrote, “He’s made better pictures since.”), FF didn’t make many pure comedies, and his next few movies swing closer to tragedy, so this is a slightly unusual mode for him. He uses dramatic techniques to amp up the comedy, as in the fast cuts of expectant faces staring at Trieste when he has to flounder about in his own lies, and the POV shots tracking towards his relatives as he approaches them.

It’s a pretty funny film, and the gags are delivered with affection. At the end, when Wanda is reunited with her panic-stricken husband, it’s genuinely touching. First, Fellini threw away most of his dialogue and had Bovo and Trieste communicate in comedy sobs, like a couple of Stan Laurels.

Then, at the Vatican, Bovo discovers that Trieste’s family is very nice, and he kind of realizes it to. “You’re my White Sheik,” she says to him, and he looks briefly perturbed by this new and mysterious responsibility, but he’s recently tested his resilience in new and challenging ways and it seems like he might be up to it, whatever it is.

This has been a delayed, and slightly truncated Film Club, so I promise an epic next time — SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS seems like a film we all have lots to say about, so I’m suggesting that.

16 Responses to “Film Club April: The White Sheik”

  1. I love that the Sheik is introduced with a mighty crotch shot, the camera between his legs as he swings towards us, and that he gets increasingly more pathetic (and her husband seems more of a nice guy, covering for her mysterious absence instead of blaming her before his family) as the movie goes on. Seemed like a bunch of circus silliness when the movie started, but I loved it by the end. And yes, I rejoiced when I heard Nino Rota at the beginning… I have been playing the Amarcord soundtrack in my car for months now.

    References not caught: I didn’t know what a fumetti was, but puzzled it out eventually, and totally missed the Cabiria connection since I haven’t seen that film. Haven’t seen much Fellini yet, in fact, but I enjoyed “Ginger & Fred” very much.

    I keep wanting to write “shiek.” I before E except after C, and all that.

    Maybe someone in the Sullivan’s Travels thread will have an explanation for the HANGING LEGS IN THE TREE which have haunted my dreams since I first noticed them.

  2. Orson Welles was fascinated by a lot of low culture stuff. He once said that he loved high and low art but hated middlebrow art…to which I say Amen. So I don’t think he’d look down on fumetti. Famously he told Bogdanovich that The White Sheik was his favourite of Fellini’s, he regarded Fellini as an outsider who came to Rome and was always fascinated with it but always on the outside looking in.

    The marvellous thing about The White Sheik is how he’s able to be sympathetic and understand to both the husband and wife, he doesn’t take either side over the other. It’s quite rare for a film to achieve that. Speaking of Sturges, the film is a little like The Palm Beach Story where again you have both husband and wife as characters of equal measure. And the wife runs away and the husband is chasing her. The difference is that this is a newly wed couple of an arranged marriage whereas the Sturges couple are lovers who have been married for a long time.

    Speaking of Antonioni, I remember seeing Zabriskie Point and the bits where he shows the TV commercials reminded me of fumetti before I knew that Antonioni worked on that film’s screenplay. Fellini and Antonioni were friends and generally always had kind words to say to each other, in sharp contrast to the bitchiness rife throughout Italian cinema.

    I must say I like the Rota music in this film, for his best music for Fellini is 8 1/2, Amarcord, La Strada, The White Shiek, I Vitelloni. I think The White Shiek is an excellent first debut, it showcases a lot of Fellini’s sensibility but the best was still to come.

  3. I always thought that Welles directed his scenes in Davd and Goliath. Thnks for the comfirmation

  4. It’s a fun story. Welles took the part on condition that he would shoot only until early afternoon each day, direct his own scenes, and have no scheduling limitation. So he was able to use the later part of the day, and all night if necessary, to shoot Don Quixote. He extended the shooting on D&G as long as he could, causing costs to soar, apparently under the impression that anybody who hired a genius to work on a piece of trash deserved everything he got. He would dig a pit for the camera for one shot, and then erect a scaffold for it the next (although he did this on other films, so it wasn’t just a time-wasting gimmick). His secretary told this story in an early 90s Sight and Sound.

    The trouble was, the long hours were killing him, even though he was a man who slept little all his life. And yet he was loath to conclude D&G and therefore have to stop DQ… but all good things must come to an end.


    Il Bidone also has a great score, and that’s one that’s often overlooked. Rota adds an upbeat quality to it that might seem to be at odds with the grim story, but it energizes it. The central place of music in FF’s work separates him from any form of realism.

    I think maybe the husband covers for his wife’s disappearance out of fear of losing face at first, but it’s an act of love by the end, somehow.

  5. I like the Sturges comparison. In general, films about married couples are rarer than hens’ teeth. The only two married couple sex scenes that come to mind are Don’t Look Now and… The Last Temptation of Christ. Oddly, the latter film was unpopular with a lot of xtians despite featuring a rare example of marital, church-sanctioned sex.

  6. ”8 1/2” deals with marriage too though from a male perspective. Antonioni gave us ”La Notte” though concentrating on Jeanne Moreau’s perspective. Rossellini’s ”Voyage to Italy” gives both Sanders and Bergman equal share and space. As for sex scenes among couples I am truly beat.

    When the couple is a guy born of a virgin and a woman who is a prostitute…I think they’d accept it if it was premarital rather than connubial, there’s no depths to how f–ked up fantatics truly are. The Scorsese film touches on people’s nerves because it radically does away with centuries of sexual puritanism and repression. It posits a sensual, physical nascent Christianity, that’s what offended people about the film. That and the Jews who run Hollywood. The irony is that the right-wingers made more money campaigning against the film than Scorsese did in box-office sales. I wonder if you can sue for damages on those grounds. Scorsese would likely settle for the fact that no one did a hit on him and his family like they did on the abortion doctors.

  7. The greatest married couple of them all are of course Nick and Nora Charles in the This Man series (every one of whcih has something to reccomend it.)

    What makes The White Sheik work is Alberto Sordi’s peculair charm. Yes he’s big — fat even. But he’s genuinely romantic in his faturous romantic silliness. Any viewer willing to stand back just a little bit and imagine themselves a naif in the Big City can easily see why Burnalla Bova was so impressed.

    At least at first.

    Leopoldo Trieste is almost Chaplinesque. His helplessness before the onslaught of the Shiek and his fumetti world suggests a “loser” version of Charlie (who is of course always a “winner.”)

    As for Cabiria, she’s clearly inspired by a streetwalker Fellini observed in Rome in those days, and re-jigged as a role for Gieulietta. But when he decided to make a whole picture about her he needed help as he knew absolutely nothing about such a woman’s actual life. And so he sought the council of an expert on the Roman lower depths —

    Pier Paolo Pasolini.

    And thus one of his very greatest films was made.

  8. The interesting thing with Fellini is that ultimately he made Giuelietta his Chaplin figure. First in La Strada and then in a more naturalistic role as Cabiria which is an amazing film and in many ways central to Fellini’s philosophy/worldview. Especially that scene where Cabiria is hypnotized, it’s unlike anything in film.

    One of the greatest moments ever recorded in TV was when Fellini was given his Oscar for Lifetime Achievement(he was awarded by Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren) and he came on stage and stated that the one person he wished to thank was his wife and the camera cut to Giulietta and then back to Fellini who suddenly exhorted, “and please…don’t cry!” and of course she did.

  9. Lovely! There’s a sweet story about him telling a friend he wanted to marry Giulietta and his friend was baffled: “But Ferderico, you go for these giantesses…” And FF shrugged and said, “I know, but this one is funny.”

  10. Fellini and River Phoenix died on the same day.

  11. And now a tribute to today’s Birthday Girl — DEBBIE REYNOLDS

  12. Somebody told me, and I don’t know if it’s true, that Fellini died eating a piece of cheese a friend had smuggled into hospital for him. Man, that’s how I’d like to go out.

  13. Thanks so much for the info about Welles and David and Goliath. Is it just the palace scene near the beginning of the film. that he directed?

    I think what’s special about the scene is seeing Welles’ work in color. The make up is pretty extreme; he could have almost reused the make up from Touch of Evil. Great camera angles- very Eisenstein-ian. Interesting scene- between the prophet and the king.

  14. What I heard was that Welles directed all his own scenes, but I don’t know if that’s true. Certainly there are anecdotes about the palace scene, so that’s one he did do.

    Alas I’ve only seen the film in a bad pan-and-scan, which made it hard to judge the shooting style.

  15. […] of, during the desert scenes, is Fellini’s THE WHITE SHEIK, subject of an earlier Film Club here. Since Fellini was only three when SOULS FOR SALE was released, it might seem unlikely that it […]

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