Archive for Florinda Bolkan

Big Ben

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2020 by dcairns

Michele Lupo’s films are woven together with quips and names and odd little details — much as you might expect with a more important artist. Seven was obviously his lucky number — he made SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST ROME, SEVEN REBEL GLADIATORS and SEVEN TIMES SEVEN. Big Ben is the name of a character in the last-named, and it’s the name of a computerized security system in his next caper movie, THE MASTER TOUCH. The title of that film echoes the earlier MASTER STROKE. As in SEVEN TIMES SEVEN it features a character using prison as an alibi, and a heist conducted during a football match.

Lupo is extremely ill-served by home video, and THE MASTER TOUCH has only been released on DVD in Australia, where the job was done poorly — so we only have a soft, muddy and colourless version to look at, a particular shame for a film shot by the great Tonino Delli Colli. Still, it’s set in Hamburg and all the exterior locations look drizzly, overcast and horrid. I might as well go outside.

Indoors, there are sleek, futuristic security systems, which Lupo seems to love — a long sequence of Kirk Douglas pulling off a hi-tech heist amid a 2001-esque insurance company seems to particularly excite the director, going by the huge rack focuses (focii?) and Dutch tilts.

Kirk’s partner in crime is Giuliano Gemma, seemingly Lupo’s favourite actor (though he also worked a lot with Bud Spencer and Lionel Stander, pretty much opposites to the handsome GG). There’s something perverse about the way Douglas’s character welcomes this “thieving gypsy” stereotype into the marital home, and there’s a proud, fatherly look in Kirk’s eye whenever he beholds GG and his wife, Florinda Balkan in one another’s company. We can either read her as a beard for the unstated homosexual relationship, or as some kind of hotwife Kirk is urging to cuckold him. (Or kirkold?). Most strange.

The crafty plot involves simultaneous robberies, one of which is designed to go wrong and provide an alibi. It all goes very badly tits-up, but whose tits will be up when the chips are down?

Even though the plotting is loose and somewhat silly, with improbable solutions to burglary problems and a tendency to throw in irrelevant (but well-staged)punch-ups and car chases to pad out the story, things build nicely and then there’s a spectacular gut-punch of a plot twist that sends the story spiraling towards tragedy. It’d be unfair to spoil, spoiler or spoilerize this, but I can tell you in private.

An aspect of Lipo’s cinema I haven’t yet celebrated is his delight in peculiar physiognomy, more Fellini than Leone, and the primary mush here is that of centenarian Kirk Douglas, his extraordinary Belarussian rock-face, craggy, lipless and scowling, tipping into middle age without losing any of its intimidating majesty. Nice to see that he’s kept the classical record collection from A LETTER TO THREE WIVES all this time.

Really quite grim, with a great, unexpectedly bluesy score from Morricone, built around a kind of funereal wail from a solo fluegelhorn, that never develops, merely mourns. Still, despite the tone being totally different from the previous two Lupos I’ve enjoyed, the sense of hubristic failure, the tricksy visuals (think Leone plus Lester plus Sid Furie) and the total commitment to the ludic possibilities of straight genre filmmaking make it fit in quite neatly.

Michele Lupo is a major minor filmmaker!

THE MASTER TOUCH stars Spartacus; Lola Montes; and Dr. Mabuse. With Scott Mary and Baron Konstantin Von Essenbeck.

Murder Most Fowl

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 17, 2016 by dcairns

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This is more like it! Possibly. (Like what?)

Lucio Fulci’s DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING is at least kind of interesting, which makes it an improvement on his CAT IN THE BRAIN. Unfortunately, what makes it interesting is partly wrapped up in the solution to its whodunnit aspect, so it’s impossible to discuss without spoilers. See you on the other side if you want to keep this one a mystery.

The setting is Sicily, with a backwards town, the bone-dry hills, and also a giant motorway flyover as settings. Florinda Bolkan is largely reprising her role in IL DEMONIO, with a side order of voodoo doll hexing. Someone starts murdering little boys, and she’s a suspect as she’s been sticking pins in their effigies. I mean, that kind of thing never looks good. In the manner of gialli, hardly anybody emerges from this with credit — some of the suspect child-killers are more appealing than the cops. The kids are PARTICULARLY horrible. I felt, on the whole, pretty good about them getting killed. And that’s not, you know, my regular stance.

Best kid death is the one who turns up in a water trough, transformed by some kind of reverse-Pinocchio magic into an unconvincing mannequin (shades of EVENING PRIMROSE). Well, said Fiona, dead bodies DO look unconvincing…

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As the movie goes on, surprising sympathies do start to emerge. The journalist hero (Tomas Milian) is at least somewhat capable and cool, and the heroine (Barbara Bouchet), a former drug addict and all-round minx who teases one little boy by lolling around nude, doesn’t get killed for it. Which is refreshing. People who are not cops or rustic villagers are allowed to be somewhat OK, if weird. Sex, on the other hand, is consistently gross.

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The most problematic scene is midway, when a group of villagers viciously beat Bolkan to death. This is one of Fulci’s trademark nasty, prolonged set-pieces, more pornographic than suspenseful. On the one hand, he scores it with a love song playing from a transistor radio, for disturbing counterpoint, and stages it in a churchyard. The victim has become quite sympathetic and we know now she’s innocent. Also, in a clear violation of standard gialli rules, the killers are an anonymous mob and they’re never punished for this murder. Bolkan doesn’t even die at the scene, but crawls off and expires by the roadside.

But the attempts at making this killing upsetting and meaningful, a condemnation of the vigilante impulse and of primitive rural communities, are somewhat undercut by Fulci’s typically gloating visualisation of violence. Maybe it’s because he was a doctor, or maybe because he felt the need to compete with the mayhem of Argento et al, or maybe he was just a sick sonofabitch, but Fulci always feels the need to go that extra mile, usually straight through someone’s aorta.

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Fulci’s restless visual mucking-about is in evidence here, but not as manic as in LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN (a great stylistic smorgasbord, the one film where he competes with Bava for baroque invention). Mainly he uses the wide screen for diopter shots to create impossible deep focus, or does the opposite, racking focus between giant foreground forms and tiny background people. He likes this trick so much he spends ten minutes in the middle of the film literally doing nothing else.

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Then the killer turns out to be a pedophile priest, which isn’t surprising in plot terms because his apparent NICENESS made him very suspicious in Fulci’s vespiary of a dramatis personae, but IS surprising sociologically. Sure, there’s the KILLER NUN, but I haven’t seen a giallo with a killer priest before. There was one godawful dull thing in which he SEEMED to be a priest but turned out to be an impostor, thus rubbing the movie of its one point of interest. What was that called? Maybe best forgotten, slightly unfair to spring another spoiler on you about a random different film.

Anyhow, the film admitting that there are homosexual and pedophile priests seems kind of radical, and using a priest as killer, well, that’s anti-clerical if anything is, right? And exposing this via a soccer montage is, uh, interesting.

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The title is explained by a mutilated Donald Duck doll, which ties this in with THE NEW YORK RIPPER in some strange way, for in that unpleasant movie, Fulci gives his killer the voice of Donald. This is not amusing, as you might think — it is very, very disturbing. Something must have happened to old Lucio some time way back when, involving the anthropomorphic, bottomless sailor Duck, and his mental associations with Disney’s Number Two character are a bit unpleasant.

Also: Georges Wilson, Irene Papas. Rated R for Rancorous.

 

Flash Harry

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by dcairns

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I’ve been reading the Flashman books by George McDonald Fraser. I read the first on the train down to meet Richard Lester, who tried to film it around ’79/’70, only to have it collapse when the studio panicked at the sight of their recent box office takings and pulled the plug on FLASHMAN and Kubrick’s NAPOLEON.

For those not in the know: Fraser plucked the cowardly bully character from Tom Brown’s Schooldays and made him the anti-hero of a series of historical adventures in which the ruthless and unscrupulous braggart takes part in every major military campaign and a few other historical imbroglios from 1845 to 1900. These adventures were presented in the guise of true-life memoirs discovered in a tea-chest in a midlands auction house and edited for publication by Fraser — The New York Times was fooled.

To give you a clue to Flashman’s horrific bigotry (breaking you in gently), here he is on the Irish question, as he bumps into Gladstone, who’s about to retire, in the men’s room (from Flashman and the Tiger).

“Hollo, old ‘un,” says I, “Marching orders at last, hey? Ne’er mind, it happens to all of us. It’s this damned Irish business, I suppose -” for as you know, he was always fussing over Ireland; no one knew what to do about it, and while the Paddies seemed be in favour of leaving the place and going to America, Gladstone was trying to make ’em keep it; something like that.
“Where you went wrong,” I told him, “was in not giving the place back to the Pope long ago, and apologising for the condition it’s in. Fact.”
He stood glaring at me with a face like a door-knocker.

It’s probably best to start with something like this rather than the dicier Flash for Freedom, which would take a whole blog post to unpick. The somewhat reactionary Fraser writes in the voice of the viciously bigoted Flashman with no apologies, trusting the reader to separate author from narrator. Here’s a bit from Flashman and the Dragon ~

…the coolies could be seen engaged in the only two occupations known to the Chinese peasant: to wit, standing stock-still up to the knees in paddy-water holding a bullock on a rope, or shifting mud very slowly from one point to another. Deny them these employments, and they would simply lie down and die, which a good many of them seemed to do anyway, I’m told that Napoleon once said that China was a sleeping giant, and when she awoke the world would be sorry, He didn’t say who was going to get the bastards out of bed.

Appalling stuff, of course, and only funny in a guilt-inducing, worrisome way. We know GMF disapproves of Flashman, but is it possible to disapprove enough and keep writing?

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I’d read Royal Flash and Flashman at the Charge and Flashman in the Great Game long ago, but somehow never got around to the first in the series, possibly the best. Dealing as it does with Britain’s first, disastrous Afghanistan campaign, it would have been a rather timely film to have around if Lester had made it when he intended. Part of what leads the Brits into destruction in the book (as in history, Victorian and recent) is their failure to understand the people they are dealing with / killing / civilizing / oppressing.

Lester particularly wanted to show the army, on its flight from Kabul, camping in a valley for the night. In the morning, a snow-fall has covered everything. A hand holding a trumpet emerges from the snow and blows reveille, and a few frostbitten survivors stagger from the whiteness…

The abortive attempts at this film occurred after THE BED-SITTING ROOM, when Lester’s career was in the doldrums (“Film-making has become a kind of hysterical pregnancy”) and before THE THREE MUSKETEERS, scripted by Fraser, put him back on the map. This led to ROYAL FLASH, which posits Flashman in the midst of a Ruritanian romance based on The Prisoner of Zenda (but cheekily claiming that Flashman’s exploits inspired Anthony Hope’s popular novel). Lester had aimed to cast John Alderton in the first film, but ended up with Malcolm McDowell in this one. Oddly enough, near the end of Flashman, our villanous hero is laid up in a hospital bed being praised by politicians in a scene which is uncannily close to CLOCKWORK ORANGE if you imagine McDowell in the role.

Some have suggested that Harry Paget Flashman is uncastable. Others proposed that Lester should have slide McDowell into the role of mercenary Rudi Von Starnberg and extracted Alan Bates from that part to cast as Flashman, but Lester disagrees. I think that idea came about because Bates is ideal in his role and McDowell not quite perfectly suited to his (though very funny). To me, the difficulty would seem to be that Flashman is only attractive to readers because he’s so honest with us about his manifold failings and vices, as well as the lunacy or idiocy of others. He has the appearance of a hero — think Errol Flynn, and it’s not so much that he’s particularly cowardly as that where fear makes other men fight for what they believe, Flashman is motivated only by self-interest, so terror pushes him into fleeing, fighting dirty or blubbing and begging — whatever he thinks will work.

What makes this funny is the contrast between the heroic expectations engendered by Flashman’s appearance, rank, and the situations he’s in, and what’s going on in his mind (plotting survival, lusting after women) — deprived of access to the character’s thoughts, Lester has to create comedy by letting McDowell play Flashman’s weakness more on the surface. Since he’s not an imposing figure next to Bates and Oliver Reed, you don’t get the same shock effect from seeing McDowell crumble into craven hysterics that you might if Tyrone Power were in the part. McDowell instead brings a light comedy flare, and though he can evoke strutting arrogance well it’s peacock-like rather than leonine.

(Who would I cast? Jon Finch, the greatest if-only star in British film history. But Edward Fox is also a possibility, and Timothy Dalton would have been excellent, but wasn’t a big enough star yet.)

Fraser’s lively prose, punctuated with period slang, can be suggested in the dialogue, but otherwise Lester is forced to create comedy out of slapstick accidents, which disrupt the romantic spectacle as in his MUSKETEERS films, but are slightly less suited to the purposes of Fraser’s world. Reading Flashman it’s intriguing to imagine what Lester’s film would have been like, since the story is nastier and darker than anything in Royal Flash, and the horrific elements that surface in most of Fraser’s books with his protagonists encounters the dark side of history play a much smaller role in both film and book of ROYAL FLASH.

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It’s still a better film than its reputation suggests, I think. The true miscasting is probably Florinda Bolkan and not McDowell — she lacks comic flare and despite being more authentically “dago” (Flashman is a master of every racial epithet) than the real Lola Montes, she can’t muster a wholly convincing fiery temperament.

What lets it down is the protracted ending. Fraser tends to let his books ramble on for the last several chapters, long after the climax is over, and this isn’t particularly problematic on the page since the deplorable Flashman is such infernal good company. In the movie, we get a very long and exhausting comic duel with Bates, which I enjoy a lot — Lester used very slight, undetectable undercranking for the swordplay, along with a device that allowed him to adjust the pitch of the soundtrack to prevent the leads from sounding like Chip ‘n’ Dale. With Ken Thorne’s mock-Wagnerian score going full blast, this rather batters into submission, but fails to actually conclude the film, with the chief villain escaping for a sequel that will never come. By now we’re ready for a long rest, but instead of closing credits we have a series of several fully-developed scenes rounding up the storylines of Bates, Reed, Bolkan and Britt Ekland. Most of these are necessary, but they’re cumulatively too long.

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Still, overlook that and there’s much to cherish. Ben Aris performs one of my favourite ever pratfalls after he’s hit with a champagne bottle at the christening of a locomotive — a tall man in a tall hat wavering, stunned, like an undulating soundwave, before cascading to the ground. Flashman’s scarring at the hands of Otto Bismarck and his cronies is authentically nasty and shows an ability to handle the darker aspects of the story — as in CLOCKWORK ORANGE the repugnant hero is treated so appallingly at times that we become horrified by our own sympathy for him. The knockabout kitchen duel between McDowell, Tom Bell, Lionel Jeffries and Alan Bates is spectacular. Geoffrey Unsworth’s filming of Bavarian palaces is ravishing, as is Terence Marsh’s production design, full of Victorian splendid gadgetry like the foot-pedal-powered shower at Flashman’s club (where he meets Alastair Sim in one of his last roles).

Flashman ought to return, really, but I can’t see it happening in the present climate. Not because of “political correctness” — I just described him to a television executive, and immediately the thing that came up was “sympathy”. I should write a three-thousand word attack on the concept of “sympathy” and “relatability” in drama, but it wouldn’t do any good…