Hamfisted

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A still image can’t capture the precise quality of this shot, where the men are all clapping, big hands fluttering together, so you have the effect of a miniature city being hovered over by eschelons of lardy butterflies.

Francesco Rosi has been around all my life, but I only just got around to him. I saw SALVATORE GIULIANI, crisply restored, in Bologna, and then I ran my Masters of Cinema Blur-ray of HANDS OVER THE CITY. Both are sort of procedural stories, one a fact-based investigation into the life of a bandit/revolutionary, the other an exploration of corruption in the property development business in Naples. It’s natural that the blurb for HANDS should say it’s as exciting as a thriller, but it isn’t, exactly. Rosi doesn’t use leading characters, and his stories don’t hinge on imminent jeopardy — the real risk is the risk that political corruption will devour the democratic system from within, and the films are not so much dramas about the struggle to prevent this, as forensic examinations of the body politic and the various unpleasant processes running rampant within it.

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But in place of the kind of drive and tension a thriller can muster, Rosi uses intense, jampacked compositions — I like the shots that literalise the title in an arguably hamfisted but vigorous fashion — and fills the screen with bellowing whales in business suits. Rod Steiger plays the baddie, in a glass eyrie with a street map on one wall, a marble floor littered with flunkies and newspapers, and the diminutive city laid out outside the window looking like it’s an illustration of Steiger’s map rather than the other way around.

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The casting of Rod Steiger is welcome, even though he needs to be dubbed — everyone else is dubbed too, it’s an Italian film. An actor whose head looks like a baby’s fist made from wet clay, Steiger again brings the title into play whenever he appears. The film’s left-wing politician becomes a bit of a bore through always being right — plaster saint versus clay baby-fist — but as the story concludes, there really IS a kind of thriller quality to the resounding perorations. There ought to be films made like this now, about today’s issues (which are not so different) — intense visuals, passionate arguments, doughy men yelling at each other. The staples of entertainment! (The trouble with most political dramas like House of Cards is there’s politicking but no actual politics. It’s just Game of Thrones with expensive suits.)

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8 Responses to “Hamfisted”

  1. Love this film! You should try and find La sfida, which is essentially a thriller about grocery distribution. Includes a scene in which squid is plucked out of the sea, cooked and served to gang bosses in seconds. I’ve never been able to find it on DVD with subtitles though, only seen it projected.

  2. “…intense visuals, passionate arguments, doughy men yelling at each other. The staples of entertainment!”

    Sounds a bit like Michael Mann’s “The Insider”, a film I actually rather like although I know it’s got problems, e.g. Mann’s bad habit of casting Diane Venora in a deeply unsympathetic role with a whiff of misogyny to it.

  3. I don’t usually find Mann’s visuals intense — hammy, maybe. But his stylistic choices always seem so misguided… the music in The Insider killed it for me. The friend I saw it with suggested that music can never help a realist story, and it’s kind of true. Hands begins and ends with a superbly abrasive score which sets just the right tone, but the composer mainly keeps well out of the way while the film is actually running.

  4. I think Hands Across the city is a masterpiece, its heightened neorealism and like Preminger’s Advise and Consent, it shows how politics work.

    I disagree that it isn’t as exciting as a thriller, I mean there’s no mystery and you can pretty much guess that Rod Steiger will get away with it, but the tension of political practise is bottomless and when Steiger’s character has his son imprisoned as a delaying tactic, the tension goes a long way to make him sympathetic, despite being a jerk. A lot of the actors are actual politicians, including the main “good” politician.

    That image of the Map and the constant motifs of Hands and the film’s portrayal of forces of modern city life bound by communication and networking, makes Hands of the City very much like Lang’s M…

  5. That’s an excellent comparison! Lang may not have been particularly political himself but he was always drawn to stories showing how the systems of society function. And the denisty of the compositions is comparable here too, even in widescreen. I can imagine Lang liking this a lot if he ever saw it.

  6. Zipping back to Mann for a second, I know what you mean by misguided stylistic choices, but I think he often gets away with them with his sheer chutzpah. I always think of him making bad music good – like a bad novel can make a good screenplay. Which is why when I used to collect soundtrack albums I would always feel guilty and a little bit dirty playing The Insider or Heat…

  7. What you describe must be the response Mann fans are having… I often wondered about it, because it seemed so clearly… off.

    Hearing about how he did the jump-cuts in Manhunter, with two cameras right next to one another, made me understand why he kept those cuts, which clearly don’t WORK — he’d put so much effort into achieving them that he couldn’t back down in the face of the ugly, distracting, jarring-in-the-wrong-way results.

  8. Hahaha, I’ll have to take another look at it, it’s been a while.

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