Archive for Anthony Steffen

Cox’s Orange Pippins: “…and lose the name of ACTION!”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2022 by dcairns

Quite enjoyed DJANGO THE BASTARD — the other vengeful ghost spaghetti western. Anthony Steffen is quite a compelling wraith-hero. As with this film’s unofficial twin …AND GOD SAID TO CAIN, there’s a certain loss of tension when your hero is an unkillable ghost and everyone else is a baddy. Best of the bad men is bleach-blond epileptic madman Luciano Rossi, doing the Kinski thing, as “Hugh Murdok.”

Director Sergio Garrone made a bunch of westerns and also some of those noxious Nazisploitation films. I was inclined to hate him, but couldn’t quite manage it in the face of his sheer misguided enthusiasm for wanky directorial gimmicks. His direction is lively but random. Cox picks, as an egregious example, an aerial view tracking Steffen’s hat — a shot that must have taken considerable trouble, and is over before it’s made an impression, replaced with something equally throwaway and meaningless. But I like the hat shot — it’s attractive. Some of Garrone’s other angles are just silly, but as I say, they’re lively. The kind of thing I get cross with Kenneth Branagh for doing in HAMLET, but can accept in something that is after all called DJANGO THE BASTARD.

Then we watched KEOMA together on our larger screen and that was… kind of impressive. My first Enzo G. Castellari film. I don’t know why but Tarantino’s championing him always put me off, somehow. QT’s enthusiasm can be sort of repellent, but in fairness the films he enthuses about are usually at least interesting. (I think BLOW-OUT is a poor film, personally, but it’s not devoid of interest, even just from a pathological viewpoint.)

Enzo is having fun with this very late spag western — it barely rates a mention in the Cox book because he takes the view that there are no good post-1970 Italian westerns, but this is very nearly a proper movie. Castellari’s flourishes are better-motivated than maestro Garrone’s, as when hero Franco Nero holds up four fingers in front of four opponents, a moment you can enjoy in the lengthy trailer.

Weird hearing Nero with his own accent, especially since Keoma is a halfbreed Indian. With his beard and bare chest and wolf-cut hair, FN is a new kind of gunfighter for a new-ish kind of western. Bits seem post-apocalyptic, prefiguring the genre Castellari and all the other genre hacks would dabble in after MAD MAX, other bits seem medieval — there’s a plague ravaging the land, ffs.

Woody Strode has quite a bit to do and has an extraordinary last scene — it is possible that Castellari was a bit too uncritical of his performers, or else urged them to “give it both knees” in Billy Wilder’s phrase when more restraint would have been advisable. But it’s the kind of mad choice that seems acceptable in a nutzoid oater like this.

Spaghetti westerns, unlike most of their American counterparts, always TRY to be progressive about race, though they often slip up in hilarious/uncomfortable ways, due to naivety — the spaghetti west is all like Kafka writing the Statue of Liberty with a sword in her hand: EVOCATIVELY WRONG — and a certain insensitivity that comes with the genre.

The era of Morricone and Morricone-influenced scores is over, as we also saw in FOUR FOR THE APOCALYPSE. This one also has songs — a female vocalist warbling at a high pitch like the bastard daughter of Joan Baez and Tiny Tim, and a gruff, growly man (Nero himself) who mainly sings about what is actually happening in front of us, which gets very funny. (“How did I get in this meeeeeessss?”)

KEOMA — which also has supernatural-Gothic-Shakespearian vibes — led us to JOHNNY HAMLET, originally developed by Corbucci and intended to star Anthony Perkins, but was passed to Castellari and Andrea Giordana. The real star turn in this one is Gilbert Roland, as “Johnny Hamilton’s” chum, “Horace.” The first time Horatio has been the coolest and most impressive character, and the only time a real Mexican appeared in an Italian western (according to Cox — seems legit).

A Perkins Hamlet, even a wild west one, would have been something. An Andrea Giordana Hamlet is just fair. His green eyes look good in Leonesque ECU — this is an insanely colourful film at times — the dream sequence in which the ghost appears is pure Corman, or impure Bava. Funny how Castellari, seeking to present the sequence in a way that doesn’t violate genre conventions — no ghosts in cowboy films — except the aforementioned ones, and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and Elvis at the end of FLAMING STAR I believe — and he ends up with a sequence that has absolutely nothing in common with western aesthetics.

Elsewhere, there’s a cemetery in a cave — comedy gravediggers seem ready-made for an Italian western, with the strong antecedent of the coffin-maker in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.

Castellari mounts the camera on a wheel as Johnny H realises the time is out of joint —

There are capering actors, so that we can have snatches of the bard, and an anticipation of Agnes Varda —

Kind of funny how the Shakespearian character who can’t make up his mind becomes this angst-ridden action hero who’s constantly shooting people and getting in punch-ups. Most of this action doesn’t much advance the plot, but neither do the Shakespearian soliloquies they replace (WH Auden observes that Hamlet is unusual in that the big speeches are all standalone bits of philosophising that work just as well out of context). It’s also funny to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern transformed into sadistic henchmen from the rather ineffectual stooges of the original. What “Claude Hamilton” needs in his camp is a deadly Laertes type, but none is forthcoming, though there is, instead, this guy:

A major spaghetti trope I haven’t mentioned — DISGUSTING EATING. Leone’s giant mouth closeups in DUCK, YOU SUCKER! are the apotheosis of this, but in both THE BIG SILENCE and this one, men deliver dialogue through half-masticated facefuls of chicken. There should, now that I think of it, be a spag western called A FACEFUL OF CHICKEN. In this movie the chickenlover is a Mexican bandit called Santana who seems to have no connection to the source text, which means he can do what he likes, so he does.

Johnny, like Steffen in DJANGO THE BASTARD, has just returned from the Civil War, fighting on the side of the South. Cox observes that this is unusual in Italian westerns, which aren’t suckered by the lost cause myth. Cox then embarks on his worst bit of pontificating, throwing out the right-wing talking point that the War wasn;t really over slavery, but over the southern states’ right to secede. I assume somebody fed this line to Cox and he didn’t question it further. But, as sf writer Theodore Sturgeon advises, we should be prepared always to Ask the next question. WHY did the southern states wish to secede? Turns out maybe the Civil War was about slavery after all…

This Hamlet does not go mad, or feign madness, nor does he (spoiler alert) die at the end, though most of the other characters do. These departures from the source text make this not really a version of Hamlet at all. One wonders if Corbucci, who conceived the idea, would have been more faithful, not so much to the play, as to the IDEA. What’s the point of doing Hamlet as a spaghetti western, after all, if you don;t actually follow through? And, while the opening dream sequence (deleted in America) is wonderfully outside the stylistic Overton window of the genre, an insane hero and a tragic ending (as with THE BIG SILENCE) seem perfectly suited to the revenge western. In place of all this, Castellari has his hero crucified — a ballsy move in a production of Hamlet, but rather standard for an Italian western (see also DJANGO KILL! and, in fact, KEOMA) — so that he has to tie his pistol to his hand for the final shootout, a variant on DJANGO. A shame — instead of throwing overly-familiar business at us, under the guise of a Shakespeare update, Castellari could have used the concept to hit us with material that would be genuinely unfamiliar, but perfectly in keeping with the revenge western format. A miss, a very palpable miss. But EGC is a fun stylist, and I’m perfectly willing to see more of his stuff now.

Blind Tuesday: Seeing-Eye Cat

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2012 by dcairns

Somebody is killing fashion models in Amsterdam — ever wondered why models are paid so highly? Because they’re always getting murdered.

Rejected from Forgotten Gialli, CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT winds up in Blind Tuesday (our occasional feature on blind-person-in-jeopardy thrillers), just because it’s made me rather cross. At the core of the film is a rather darling conceit, a killer using a black cat as assassin, its claws coated with deadly curare. The delightful absurdity of this idea — ever tried getting a cat to do anything? what happens when kitty washes her paws? and also, just WHY? — is rather stifled by the wrapping around of the entire plot and all the set-pieces from 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET.

Stealing is inevitable, and largely to be encouraged, in the arts, but there are times when it is to be condemned. The shot-for-shot lifting of the love scene from DON’T LOOK NOW in ABOUT LAST NIGHT… is one of them (why remind the audience, so forcibly, that Demi Moore is not Julie Christie and Rob Lowe is not Donald Sutherland [or vice versa] or that Edward Zwick does not even share a species with Nic Roeg?). This is another.

The rule is that stealing is good when it makes things better, but that holds it to a high standard — the artwork must be better than it would have been without the theft, but also better than it would have been with something original of an adequate standard. Ideally, the theft should be the kind whereby, if the viewer recognizes the source, pleasure is increased (“How clever!”) rather than spoiled (“What a blatant swipe!”)…

In the case of CRIMES OF THE BLACK CAT, it’s to be condemned because it’s lazy and unimaginative, and because it doesn’t help the film, it actually constrains it. The effect is to break the thing in two, so that Anthony Steffen (rather good and sepulchral as the sightless hero) and his investigations seem to occupy a whole other movie from the bout of silly killings.

The big adaptation is to make the hero not a playwright who uses a tape recorder to practice his dialogue, but a film composer (who can’t see the film — how does THAT work?). This allows for a giallo-within-the-giallo, which is par for the course in this compulsively self-reflective genre. Graphic close-ups of breast-slicing in this embedded movie are far more horrible than anything in the main body of the narrative, until the ending, when director Sergio Pastore goes all vicious again, and we can guess that the killer is a woman. You see, whenever the killer does something truly nasty and misogynistic, you can be fairly sure he’ll turn out to be a woman (dishonorable exception: IGUANA WITH A TONGUE OF FIRE, where he’s gay) . It’s a kind of alibi instinct, to deflect the filmmaker’s own guilt.*

This is, on the whole, the kind of giallo that makes me not like the genre. It’s a field which triumphs when it unlocks its imagination, and there’s something deeply tedious about all these black-gloved killers. I think that’s the true explanation for the decline of Dario Argento: he’s become bored by his own tropes, and God forbid that he should ever examine them critically for signs and meaning. Mario Bava, God love him, wasn’t inclined to introspection either, but he felt compelled to explore every genre on offer, even those like the sexy-type-film which he instinctively disliked. It’s because he didn’t view himself as an artist that he experimented so much, making him kind of (but only kind of) the Keaton to Argento’s Chaplin.

Hey, another strange thing. The woman with the killer cat operates out of a pet shop called, according to its sign, UNDULATER. Why would a pet shop be called UNDULATER? And if you ran a pet shop called UNDULATER, wouldn’t that cause a fair bit of confusion (especially in Amsterdam)?**

*The other bit of giallo cowardice: if the killer is a priest, he will soon be unmasked or unfrocked as a bogus priest. Most of these movies are deeply conservative at heart.

**Stop press: W Krikken suggests,via Twitter, that the setting is Copenhagen. I think that is correct. Still, makes the possibilities for misconstruing UNDULATOR even richer, if anything.

In other news: Limerwreckage — Carradine rhymes again!