It’s eight forty-five on Wednesday 31st March and I’m finally sitting down to write about Fellini’s THE WHITE SHEIK. And by the way, the April Impossible Film Quiz will appear tomorrow morning.
The movie starts with a blast of Nino Rota. “This music?” asks Fiona. “They reused it?” I explain that Nino Rota’s various Fellini scores all sound like circus music but that this isn’t the theme from EIGHT AND A HALF. If you have a collected Fellini scores album (I have two or three), they do tend to blur together. Which isn’t intended as a knock. If you ever go to the Cannes Film Festival you absolutely must have this music on your MP3 player. The first time I was there I was lucky enough to find a cassette for sale for 30 francs in the market place, and the connection was cemented.
But this is the first ever Fellini-Rota collaboration, and thus momentous. Rota’s death in 1979 tore a hole in Fellini’s screen world, although it’s nice to see his later, post-Rota films garnering more appreciation now than they did at the time of release.
It’s amazing the way this film prefigures the rest of Fellini’s career, while still remaining a modest comedy with no great pretensions. The concern with low-grade showbiz activity, already introduced in the co-directed VARIETY LIGHTS, which will culminate in GINGER AND FRED (Berlusconi-era TV is the only form of showbiz not to be looked upon kindly by Fellini), is already present. We get traveling shots past Roman fountains and monuments, which will eventually make up about ten minutes of ROMA. We get a tracking shot past a man asleep in bed, which is reiterated four or five times at the close of I VITELLONI (Fellini’s first hit, which rescued his career after this movie tanked). Somebody says, “…and the ship sails on.” And we get Giulietta Masina as Cabiria, who will famously return in her own movie.
Vittorio DeSica, speaking of his matinee idol days, said he was so handsome that women would leave their husbands on their honeymoons and seek him out. So either DeSica saw this movie and borrowed the idea, or he said this in the 50s and Fellini swiped the notion for his screenplay (co-authored with regular collabs Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano, plus Antonioni). Wanda (Brunella Bovo — whom Fiona calls “The Italian Jessica Harper”) ditches her pompous and controlling new spouse (Leopoldo Trieste, popping his eyes like Mantan Moreland) in order to meet her beloved White Sheik, star of the fumetti.
Alberto Sordi is fantastically pasty and flaccid as the Sheik, Fernando Rivolli. I assumed this was a Fellini joke, where the Valentino figure is a grotesque, but Sordi did play some straight leading man roles (as in I TRE VOLTI) without any apparent irony, so maybe I’m wrong, and he was considered some kind of catch. His tight trousers expose the proportions of his thighs, like overstuffed sausages, to unappetizing effect. And his arse is a colossus. But I think Fellini is on top of this — as a good cartoonist, he tends to reveal character through appearance (leading to later accusations of Manicheanism). So the fact that Sordi’s sleazy actor is a sleazy actor is obvious to us long before Wanda realizes it, and that’s OK.
The movie follows two parallel lines, with Wanda’s adventure with Sordi and his crew intercut with Trieste’s efforts to conceal her absence from his family. Through his comical misery, Trieste gradually gains a bit of sympathy, having started as an insufferable prig (and not being the most prepossessing fellow). Wanda gets sympathy mainly by being sweet and cute, and by the romantic and essentially innocent nature of her quest.
All the supporting players are starry-wonderful, like the dyspeptic policeman who considers Trieste crazy, and the hotel manager who keeps trying to interest him in postcards.
For those of you watching the Optimum Releasing Region 2 DVD — isn’t the sound quality terrible? Every time there’s quiet dialogue or music it sounds as if it’s simultaneously underwater and on fire. And yet the louder stuff sounds OK — I suspect the intervention of incorrectly calibrated digital technology, but I’m no expert. Maybe the film needs restoration — or maybe Optimum’s notoriously slack quality control is playing up again (if you’re ever searching for a truncated cut of a celebrated film, however obscure the mutilated version, the chances are Optimum will have released it.)
I made a point of looking at THE SHEIK and SON OF THE SHEIK too, to see if Fellini actually drew anything specific from them, and in fact, the much more sophisticated SOTS (with a credit for “turbulent music” and production design by William Cameron Menzies) has one composition which does strongly resemble a key shot in Fellini’s movie, at what Fiona called “the world’s most pathetic suicide attempt,” when Wanda throws herself into the Tiber but picks an unfortunately shallow spot, her sitting position recalls a shot of Vilma Banky which I’m unfortunately unable to screen-grab.
The fumetti makers are of course a film crew in all but name, and probably a bit more elaborate in their set-up than any real photo-strip creators (I certainly can’t imagine the artists of Jackie magazine having such an infrastructure). The fast montage of stills being taken — with no apparent story discernible, just a pop-art collage of faux-twenties romantic exotica — is the cinematic high point of the movie, as well as the only but with any relationship to Antonioni, although it’s ten times more Felliniesque. Actually, the failed suicide recalls Antonioni’s episode of AMORE IN CITTA, released the following year, but only very dimly.
(There’s a lovely story about Orson Welles shooting DON QUIXOTE in Italy, while simultaneously directing his own scenes in DAVID AND GOLIATH. Leading his crew on donkeys up a weird rocky promontory, Welles was not in the least dismayed to find a fumetti crew already set up at the summit, right in the path of his shot. These denizens of an inferior form of art were apparently beneath the range of Welles’s lofty perceptions, so he carried on setting up as if they weren’t there — and by the time he was set up, they’d duly gone.)
Despite the humour of Fellini’s work, and his past as co-proprietor of the Funny Face Shop, selling caricatures to American servicemen (one customer, Sam Fuller, wrote, “He’s made better pictures since.”), FF didn’t make many pure comedies, and his next few movies swing closer to tragedy, so this is a slightly unusual mode for him. He uses dramatic techniques to amp up the comedy, as in the fast cuts of expectant faces staring at Trieste when he has to flounder about in his own lies, and the POV shots tracking towards his relatives as he approaches them.
It’s a pretty funny film, and the gags are delivered with affection. At the end, when Wanda is reunited with her panic-stricken husband, it’s genuinely touching. First, Fellini threw away most of his dialogue and had Bovo and Trieste communicate in comedy sobs, like a couple of Stan Laurels.
Then, at the Vatican, Bovo discovers that Trieste’s family is very nice, and he kind of realizes it to. “You’re my White Sheik,” she says to him, and he looks briefly perturbed by this new and mysterious responsibility, but he’s recently tested his resilience in new and challenging ways and it seems like he might be up to it, whatever it is.
This has been a delayed, and slightly truncated Film Club, so I promise an epic next time — SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS seems like a film we all have lots to say about, so I’m suggesting that.