Archive for Frank Wolff

Forbidden Divas: The Four Angels of the (Eurotrash) Apocalypse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2022 by dcairns

The return of David Melville Wingrove —

“To me, you aren’t a man. You’re therapy!” – Ursula Andress, Anyone Can Play

If somebody told you they had seen a film starring Honeychile Ryder, Queen Catherine de Medici, the Goddess Minerva and Eva Kant, you might be forgiven for thinking they had lost the plot. But the key to understanding Italian films of the 60s is to realise that anything could happen and – at some point – probably did. A sort of Desperate Housewives all’italiana, Anyone Can Play (1968) is a gaudy and camp-tastic bauble of a sex farce about four friends who go to colourful and eccentric lengths to get a slice of la dolce vita.

According to the credits, our four leading ladies have other names. One of them is Ursula Andress, the archetypal Bond Girl from Doctor No – and star of later masterworks like Stick ‘Em Up, Darlings and The Mountain of the Cannibal God. Another is Virna Lisi, an Italian sex bomb who proved her mettle some decades later and won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for La Reine Margot. A third is Claudine Auger, a former Miss France who was cast in Le Testament d’Orphée by Jean Cocteau – largely if not entirely for her resemblance to an Ancient Greek goddess. (She too became a Bond Girl, to lesser effect, in Thunderball.) Last but by no means least is Marisa Mell, the star of Ken Russell’s first movie French Dressing and the sexy sidekick to a master criminal in Danger: Diabolik.

A dazzling array, I grant you. The question is…what are they actually to do? Not one of these ladies was used as much more than window dressing in the 60s. (Or, in the case of Andress, as a living and breathing work of art who seemed to be forbidden to act on pain of death.) It feels heartening – perhaps even vaguely subversive – to see them all cast together in a film that trades not only on their looks (which are breathtaking) but also on their sly wit and deadpan humour, their campy flair for self-parody and drop-dead sense of style. It is a rare achievement to make a frivolous and wholly inconsequential movie.  Especially one that does not insult its audience or the people who appear in it. But that is what Anyone Can Play contrives not to do.

It starts with Auger as Esmeralda, a strait-laced provincial housewife whose husband is constantly away on business. She works off her frustrations by racing cars at high speed and has her eye on the Monte Carlo Rally. It would be lying to say she did not also have her eye on a hunky mechanic – but then many a successful marriage is founded on lies. Bored with her spouse and his inattention, she decides to go to Rome and pay a call on her three close friends from way back. All of them live in sumptuous apartments that have a panoramic view of the Colosseum out the window. (In fact, it looks suspiciously like the same one.) Yet otherwise, their lives are in a truly parlous state…

Anna (Andress) is suffering from insomnia because she has a Nightmare on Elm Street-style terror of falling asleep. Every time she does, she has visions not of Freddy Krueger but of a hairy, muscular brute who chases her through a psychedelic glass labyrinth while she is naked apart from a long grey chinchilla coat. Hers is the sort of conundrum that Freud never encountered or, at least, never had the imagination to write about. One afternoon she is driving and falls asleep at the wheel. The traffic cop who comes to fine her (Mario Adorf) is – BINGO! – a dead ringer for the man in her dream. She is happily married to a handsome husband (Brett Halsey) but what’s a girl to do? As Oscar Wilde said, “the one way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

Her pal Luisa (Lisi) has fallen prey to blackmailers due to her extramarital indiscretions. A petty crook (Lando Buzzanca) has an audio tape of her making love to a strange man in a car. (Fear not, the car was parked this time.) The challenge she faces is twofold. First, to come up with some hush money before her husband (Jean-Pierre Cassel) can find out. She resorts to staging a burglary of her own home. Second, to work out which of her multiple lovers the man in questions actually was. For a lady with such a hectic sex life, that is more easily said than done. Lisi’s acting is by far the most polished of the four; she proves herself a high-style farceuse in the mould of Carole Lombard or Myrna Loy.

The most miserable of the four is Paola (Mell) who is married to a stuffy conservative politician (Frank Wolff). Her husband forbids her to have fun in any form – which is why, perhaps, she jumps at a chance to perform a striptease at a high-class charity concert. In a scorchingly erotic sequence, she parades about in a voluminous white mink cloak while unseen men reach out their arms from backstage and peel off her gloves, her stockings, her shoes. It is all in a good cause, naturally. But what will her husband say when her antics threaten to open up a whole new career? Mind you, even he cannot pretend the money would not come in handy…

The one weakness in Anyone Can Play is that its director Luigi Zampa – who also made the temptingly titled Tigers in Lipstick – does not show enough of these formidable women together as a team. Just think what might happen if they met up on the Via Veneto to knock back some Negronis and swap stories about the general inadequacy of men. This feels like a missed opportunity and it all plays a shade too much like one of those portmanteau films that enjoyed such a vogue in the 60s, only one where the editor dropped some LSD and accidentally spliced their four stories together.

Yet the film is still a delight. Given half a chance, any one of its leading ladies could knock out the cast of Desperate Housewives or Sex and the City with one elegantly gloved hand tied – with a Bulgari bracelet, naturally – behind her shapely Fendi-clad back. They did not let just anybody become a star in those days.

David Melville

Cox’s Orange Pippins: Spaghetti is a dish best served cold

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2022 by dcairns

Fiona was enthused about seeing THE BIG SILENCE, because as it’s a snowy western, she assumed the people would be less orange. The orangeyness of everyone in spaghetti westerns, their pores clogged with tangerine pancake makeup, really bothers her. She really liked this one.

Before that, we had quite a good time with THE PRICE OF POWER, an interesting, unusual and original spag western from 1969 — the first film, as Alex Cox points out, to directly tackle the Kennedy assassination — though there are all those weird foreshadowing films like SUDDENLY and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE — and then there’s Mr. Zapruder’s magnum opus, which really wins first place.

But Tonino (MY NAME IS NOBODY) Valerii’s film, written with Massimo Patrizi and gothic/giallo specialist Ernesto Gastaldi, really goes for it, in the oddest way. In order to make the story of actual president James Garfield’s actual assassination feel a bit more resonant, they jettison all the facts and transport the event to Dallas, represented by standing sets from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Van Johnson is imported to play the doomed prez, and the basic events we can all agree upon — sniper kills POTUS, patsy is arrested and assassinated, shadowy cabal of political/business interests pays the bills — are recycled all’Italiana, with many additional massacres featuring electronically amplified gun blasts (every gunshot has a ricochet PANG! even if there’s nothing around for the bullet to carom off of. And I generally liked the racial politics — there’s much talk of slavery and the slimy businessmen led by Fernando Rey are trying to undo the outcome of the Civil War. I loved the way the trauma of the actual hit-job causes the camera to come off its tripod and Zapruder around, panic-stricken. Valerii also throws in a lot of wacky diopter shots.

What, to me, stopped the film from really coming off, was the role of Giuliano Gemma, not because he’s absurdly handsome and has five hundred teeth, but because he wins, saves the day for democracy, and all is well. Alex Cox observes that “The necessary assumptions of the conspiracy film (almost-universal racism, total corruption of the police, double-dealing by the forces of authority) are already those of the spaghetti western, so there’s no conflict of interest.” But the Italian western mainly follows the required pattern of good guy versus bad guy, good guy wins. It’s just that usually, or in Leone anyhow, the good guy is less good. Even so, it’s impossible to imagine Leone ending a film with Volonte offing Eastwood (though he wanted to start OUATITWEST with all three of his stars from TGTBATUGLY being shot down by his new hero).

There are some stories, however, that don’t benefit from the popular and gratifying heroic triumph ending. Polanski noted that for the audience to care about CHINATOWN’s story of corruption, it shouldn’t end with the social problems being cleared up. They’re still with us, after all — capitalism, corruption and abuse — so suggesting that a lone private eye with a bisected nostril solved them in the 1930s would be dishonest.

This is where THE BIG SILENCE comes in. I’ve resisted Sergio Corbucci after being underwhelmed by the original DJANGO — the mud, the coffin and the sadism were all neat, but it was extremely poorly shot, and how dare anyone compare a poorly-shot film favourably to Leone?

THE BIG SILENCE is also photographically iffy, but at the same time has many splendid wide shots, thanks to the snowy Tyrolean locations. What uglifies Corbucci’s shooting is the messy, out-of-focus, misframed and herky-jerky closeups. Like Tinto Brass, Corbucci seems to position his cameras at random, stage the blocking without regard to what can be seen, and throw the whole mess together in a vaguely cine-verita manner. And one of his operators here is incompetent. What beautifies it is the costumes, actors, settings, and wide shots. And he has Morricone (with Riz Ortolani) providing a unique, wintry, romantic score.

The set-up is stark and simple: outside the aptly-named town of Snow Hill, a raggletaggle band of outlaws is starving, picked off by bounty hunters. A new sheriff (Frank Wolff) has been sent to impose order. A military man, he means well, but is of uncertain competence: on his way to town he’s robbed of his horse by the desperate outlaws, who eat it.

The movie’s sidelining of the “new sheriff in town” is amusing — our main characters are to be Loco (in the original language version, Tigrero), a preening, psychopathic bounty hunter played by Klaus Kinski, and Silence, a mute killer of bounty killers, played by a Mauser-wielding Jean-Louis Trintignant in what’s apparently his favourite role. Silence has no dialogue but he does have a traumatic flashbackstory, as was becoming de rigeur in Leone films.

There’s also Vonetta McGee, later borrowed by Alex Cox for REPO MAN, rather magnificent as a widow who hires Silence, paying him with her body, to kill Loco. And the usual corrupt manager of the general store. Spaghetti westerns are communistic in a low-key way, the business interests are usually the real bad guys.

The body count is high, as we’d expect. The blood is very red. The bad guys are very bad, and they have it mostly their own way. The typical baroque whimsicality of the genre’s violence is in evidence: rather than shooting his opponent, Kinski shoots the ice he’s standing on, dropping him into the freezing water. But, unusually, none of this is funny. The sadism is intense: even our hero has a tendency to shoot men’s thumbs off when they surrender (stops them from unsurrendering). There’s a really intense focus on INJURY TO THE HAND, which goes back to Django but becomes demented here. Paul Schrader attributed this motif to writers’ anxiety — hands are what you write with.

Cox points out that, though the film is terse and devoid of subplots, the author of the English dub, Lewis Ciannelli (son of actor Eduardo Ciannelli), has used the Utah setting to insert some stuff about the outlaws being victims of religious persecution, suggesting they’re Mormons. At least they’re treated more sympathetically than in THE BIG GUNDOWN… up to a point.

Introducing the film on Moviedrome back in the day, Cox remarked, “And the ending is the worst thing ever.” Meaning it as praise, you understand.

The movie’s ending is its most astonishing element. It stands comparison with CHINATOWN, and is even more startling in a way since there are, after all, plenty of noirs with tragic endings (but none quite like the one Polanski imposed on Robert Towne — Towne’s ending was a tragedy that solves the social problem — Polanski’s instead sets it in cement).

Corbucci came up with the story, penning the script with the usual football team of collaborators. His widow, says Cox, “told Katsumi Ishikuma that her husband had the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X in mind.” Che’s murder happened right before the shoot. This gives the film its unusual seriousness, and what makes it more effective than THE PRICE OF POWER is Corbucci upends the genre conventions that would prevent the horror from staying with us.

THE PRICE OF POWER stars Erik the Viking; Dr. Randall ‘Red’ Adams; and Don Lope.

THE BIG SILENCE stars Marcello Clerici; Don Lope de Aguirre; Proximates the Tyrant; Father Pablo Ramirez; Chico; Fregonese the Tyrant; Principe di Verona; and Marlene.

I ask you, is THIS the face of a killer?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 18, 2020 by dcairns


LA MORTE RISALE A IERA SERA (DEATH OCCURRED LAST NIGHT) is a strange and unsavory crime thriller that seems midway between the genres of gialli (sex, murder, mystery) and poliziotteschi (cops, detection, procedural).


Raf Vallone is a lower-middle-class working stiff with a bum knee whose daughter is kidnapped. She’s a very tall girl (why does the script insist on this? No idea) with a mental age of three. Because she has an innocent tendency to promiscuity, Vallone keeps her shut in the apartment while he’s at work. One day she’s gone.


Detectives Frank Wolff and Gabriele Tinti take the case — the girl has vanished into Milan’s brothels, where her passive, childlike nature would seem to make her an object of fantasy for the clientele. This is all very, very uncomfortable stuff, and the movie is not above regarding Gillian Bray’s character with a lecherous eye.

Things are already dark and they just get darker. Shadowplayer Andre Ferreira identifies a theme in director Duccio Tessari‘s giallo-type films, where the victims are unusually sympathetic. Most gialli make the murders easier to enjoy without guilt by making the victims fairly unappealing except sexually, and the detectives/investigators are often grumpy, low-charisma types (Cameron Mitchell’s Inspector Morlacchi in BLOOD AND BLACK LACE is both prototype and paragon here).

So Vallone is treated with respect by the movie and by Wolff’s character, who gains our respect for his attitude. Then things unfold in an odd and gradual way. Wolff and Tinti plunge into the sexual underworld, visiting whorehouses undercover as johns with the state paying the bills. Lots of montages with the inexplicably jaunty pop soundtrack by Gianni Ferrio bouncing away as if this was all a big romp. Some of the cutting gets quite M-like.

Then the victim is found dead and half-burned, and then Vallone gets a clue which he keeps to himself so he can get revenge. It all bends genre norms out of shape, not always in the best of ways, but it’s interesting. I’d never seen a man killed with a washing machine, for instance.

Two things are typically poliziotteschi: (1) there’s widespread anomie with a bunch of people who know stuff about this unbelievably heinous crime who don’t share it with the cops because society is rotten and nobody cares and (2) there’s a somewhat fascistic DIRTY HARRY attitude that the cops will sometimes need to break rules and noses in order to get the job done, damnit.

As a procedural, the film is daft. We don’t see our heroes fucking their way through the sex industry, which seems to be threatened at first: they just use their undercover guises to open doors. But there’s a hilarious bit where a witness is made to draw a suspect, even though he can’t draw. He produces a smiley face with no upper head, and then this is passed on to a police artist to be transformed into a better drawing, with no contact whatsoever between witness and sketcher. The result is as you might predict, ludicrous, but all the later witnesses agree that it captures the essence of the guilty party.



You have now.

There are some nice human touches, though: Wolff plays the whole thing with sinus trouble, sticking a decongestant stick up a nostril at inopportune moments. Donald Pleasence would surely nod his approval.