Imperfect Crimes

A man.

Two showings of shorts at Il Cinema Ritrovato won me over with their wit — Imperfect Crimes, programmed by Andrea Meneghelli, united a series of incomplete crime movies. The idea itself is a funny one, and the first fragment shown, NINA LA POLIZIOTTA, directed in or around 1920 by Giuseppe Guarino, exemplified the concept, cutting off just as an intertitle declares “The killer — is –!”

Of course, we can’t know if the immediately succeeding shots, now lost to time, would have provided the murder mystery’s solution, or if the filmmakers would have deferred the revelation for another reel or so, which only makes the accident happier. It looks like being a decent melodrama, with nice clothes — Italy in the teens and pre-flapper twenties seems to have been the only place in the western world where women were allowed to dress in a non-frumpy manner. In fact, my first encounter with the word “frump”, aged around twelve, was in the Brownlow & Gill Hollywood book. Lillian Gish, on a photo showing her in Griffith’s office: “I certainly look like a frump in that dress.”

ALBERTINI CONTRA DE SCHORPIOEN (aka IL PROTETTO DELLA MORTE I think, 1919, director maybe Filippo Castamagna) was a superhero story — Luciano Albertini, endowed with the strength of three men and a chunky sweater, battles the cat-suited Scorpion in a series of discontinuous fragments and stunts. Amongst the dangling from ropes, ladders and windows, and the massed brawls (Albertini’s chief fighting tactic is to pick up one opponent and hurl him at another, a sound technique if you’re up to it), a unique moment: at the far right of frame, a wooden handle obtrudes… a hand tentatively touches it… gives it a half turn, then thinks better of it… evidently the movie was being shot with two cameras, very closely placed, but for this scene, a strenuous punch-up, the second operator was for some reason (film shortage?) reluctant to do any cranking, whereas operator one, cranking like fury, was unfortunately oblivious to what he was actually capturing on celluloid…

IL RE DELL’ABISSO (THE KING OF THE ABYSS, Riccardo Tolentino, 1919) was equally action-packed, but was preserved as a mixture of jolting blipverts and longer sequences of derring-do shorn of context, and often of their beginnings, middles or endings. The heroes are a family of tumblers, which allows for a huge amount of implausible cliffhanging as well as rampant child-endangerment, which was emerging as a theme.

IDOLO INFRANTO (THE FALLEN IDOL) was directed in 1913 by our old chum Emilio Ghione, but rather than the serial capers I admire him for, this was more of a sedate woman’s picture with hardly any crime to speak of, but starring dolorous diva Francesca Bertini and with smashing title cards and scenery and frocks and gestures. A plot synopsis informed us that there WOULD have been some crime, since the tortured protagonist eventually brained Bertini with a hammer, mistaking her for her own bust, but that footage is lost on a cutting room floor that is itself also lost.

IL PASSATO CHE TORNA (THE PAST COMING BACK, anonymous), the limbless trunk of an obscure 1924 melodrama, was full of enigmas without solutions, as well as arty mirror shots and horrid, chalky makeup on the men. It dripped with atmosphere, moved at a sepulchral pace, and cut off in mid-pause, its origins and purpose still a total mystery, an invitation to strain our negative capability to breaking point.

SANSONE E LA LADRA DI ATLETI (Armando Mustacchi, 1919) was more he-man stuff: it translates as SAMSON AND THE THIEF OF ATHLETES. A sinister organization in boiler suits and goggles is trying to destroy Italian sport (a worthy cause), but they have reckoned without muscleman Samson (the dauntless Albertini again) with his massive frizzy hair and iron thews. In truth, he might be a more effective foe were he not prone to “a sudden uncontrollable fondness” when confronting the villainess, but it’s happened to the best of us. Helping Samson is celebrated cyclist Costante Girardengo as himself, fighting crime by cycling at it.

From the festival programme: “Sotto la maschera / La vendetta del pugnale doesn’t even have a name we can rely on. The two titles were handwritten on a scrap of paper found inside one of the cans that held the two nitrate reels. There is a 1913 film entitled Sotto la maschera, but this isn’t it. We follow a girl plotting revenge for her brother’s murder. The initially irrefutable evidence becomes mired in doubt. A baroness hides a dagger. With a relieved heart, a prince is slaughtered by the enemy among the barbed wire of the front. At least this time we have the ending. But will that be enough to dispel all our doubts?”

No. No it won’t.

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