Archive for Vittorio Gassman

Mambo Italiano

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another Forbidden Diva!

FORBIDDEN DIVAS 

Mambo Italiano! 

“She’s very young. All she wants is revenge on everything and everybody.”

–          Shelley Winters on Silvana Mangano, Mambo

 In the 1949 Neo-Realist melodrama Bitter Rice, an unknown Italian girl became a globally famous star by the simple expedient of standing in a paddy field and looking sultry. She had dark auburn hair, thick thighs and the lineaments of a Botticelli angel. Her name was Silvana Mangano and she was the protégée (and, eventually, the wife) of Italy’s most powerful film mogul Dino de Laurentiis. At no point in her first leading role did she make any discernible effort to act – but everything she did on screen seemed weirdly believable, even when the characters and situations were quite patently absurd. This was a skill that would serve her admirably in year after year of Dino de Laurentiis productions. Up until the advent of Silvana, the mass popular audience had tended to reject Neo-Realist movies because they were not sufficiently glamorous. This new star solved the problem single-handed and in one fell swoop. Silvana Mangano could look more glamorous draped in a dishcloth than your average Hollywood actress dressed in a wardrobe tailor-made by Edith Head.

Having triumphantly straddled the Italian box-office, de Laurentiis duly set about turning his lady into a bona fide International Movie Icon. This would obviously involve a complex network of co-productions employing foreign talent – but preference, invariably, was given to foreign talent that was available at a reduced price. By the early 50s, the American writer-director Robert Rossen – who had won the Best Picture Oscar for his political drama All the King’s Men (1949) – had been forced to flee to Europe after a perilous run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Who better – in Dino’s mind – than a director famed for his rather dour engagement with serious social issues to helm a lush and lavish and insanely melodramatic musical epic called Mambo (1954)? Keen to surround his leading lady with the very finest support, de Laurentiis took a quick look at the gossip columns and saw that Hollywood star Shelley Winters had just dumped her (possibly platonic) boyfriend Farley Granger to marry the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. He swiftly set about hiring all three actors to appear in his new film. Much to Dino’s chagrin, Granger declared the whole production a vulgar circus and refused to play any part in it. He was duly replaced by the British actor Michael Rennie. But as in any de Laurentiis extravaganza – from War and Peace (1956) to The Bible (1966) to Dune (1984) – it is the intention – and not the end result – that actually counts.

Mambo opens lavishly with a rousing Afro-Caribbean production number featuring the all-black Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Wooden shutters fly open and ladies in voluminous flouncy skirts gyrate to the clatter of steel drums, while somehow managing to balance large plates of tropical fruit. Then a door opens at the back of the stage and the lead dancer makes her entrance. She is none other than – wait for it! – Silvana. It appears that nobody involved in this production ever pondered the ethical or practical issues of turning a white actress into the star attraction of an all-black dance troupe. Mercifully, she is not done up in blackface like Monica Vitti in her ‘tribal’ dance number in L’Eclisse (1962). She wears a simple but elegant silk-and-sequin gown and does nothing that is embarrassing or untoward in itself. Her dancing is quite serviceable, if in no way on a par with any of the other dancers on the stage. Yet the overall effect is as awkward and uncomfortable as L’Eclisse. We can only conclude that Cultural Appropriation was scarcely a hot-button issue among Italian (or, indeed, Hollywood) film-makers of the 50s.

Following this sensational success the company moves on to its next stop, Venice. This just happens to be Silvana’s home town and, as she sits on the train and reminisces, we find ourselves in the sort of plot that kept Joan Crawford in employment for most of the 30s. Her character is a poor-but-honest girl who lives in a seedy back alley with her drunken father and her brattish kid sister. (Her mother is long dead, most likely because her home life was frankly unbearable.) This girl supports her entire family by working in a Venetian glass shop and selling overpriced bibelots to tourists. But she nurtures dreams of one day running away to Rome to become a film star. Her boyfriend (Vittorio Gassman) is a croupier at a casino on the Lido; he is also, we soon gather, something of a shady operator. One day, a gaunt and poetically doomed Venetian prince (Michael Rennie) wanders into her shop, sporting the most lethal set of cheekbones since the heyday of Basil Rathbone. He takes a shine to the comely shop-girl and gives her a pair of tickets to a masked Carnival ball. Her boyfriend, spotting an opportunity, sells his ticket on the black market and unwisely allows Silvana to go with the Prince. This is not a decision we might expect from an insanely jealous and possessive Italian male…but hey, the plot of Mambo has to get moving somehow.

The ball is a quasi-Sternbergian fantasy of masked revellers, floating paper streamers and what looks like gallons of confetti pouring down from the ceiling. The evening’s entertainment is provided by the Katherine Dunham troupe, who come cascading down the grand staircase or, in some cases, leaping over banisters with all the savage aplomb of Attila the Hun moving in for his final sacking of the Roman Empire. All this excitement is just too much for Silvana, who has already been tippling on champagne and cannot resist her primal urge to join in with the dance. Soon she is cavorting face to face with a half-naked black male dancer, who is clad in the most obscenely tight pair of leopard-skin beeches this side of a Tarzan movie. This spectacle inflames the hapless Prince with a wave of simply uncontrollable lust. At the end of the dance, he drags Silvana up the staircase and has his way with her. Next morning, in the pale light of dawn, she is acutely aware of having become a Fallen Woman – and feels too ashamed even to go home. That is quite convenient, in fact, because she has caught the eye of Shelley Winters, who plays the (entirely fictitious) manager of the Katherine Dunham troupe. This lady has resolved, on the spot, to build the girl up into the company’s star attraction.

Not that her interest in the neophyte is purely artistic. Shelley Winters has been costumed and styled to look as much as possible like the 1950s stereotype of a Butch But Glamorous Lesbian. Just in case we miss the point, the dialogue drops heavy hints about the lonely and frustrated existence to which “a woman like that” must invariably be doomed. Tellingly, much of this dialogue was eliminated from the Italian release of Mambo and survives only in the international English-language print. As a 21st century audience, we are at once fascinated and appalled – but that is certainly nothing new in this movie. With her undeniable powers of persuasion, Shelley wrests Silvana away from Vittorio and moulds her tyrannically into a great dancer. At this point, Mambo threatens to become a sort of misbegotten remake of The Red Shoes (1948) only with a lesbian in the Anton Walbrook role and a sleazy petty criminal in the role played by Marius Goring. An honest-to-God analysis might well reveal that this film equates being a criminal with being a lesbian and also, indirectly, with being black. Hence it is best to avoid doing one if we are to go on enjoying the fun. Our heroine makes her triumphal return to Venice. She enters a nightclub looking simply sensational in a black beaded gown that looks as if it had been poured slowly, bead by glistening bead, over her curvaceous and near-naked form.

Perhaps it is inevitable that she meets the Prince again. But what we honestly did not see coming is the fact that the Prince turns out to be dying of hereditary haemophilia, as was the custom in all good aristocratic families. No sooner does Vittorio get wind of this than he cooks up a plot for Silvana to marry the dying man, so she can inherit his money and his crumbling ancestral palazzo and share her ill-gotten gains, naturally, with her true love. The plot now shifts abruptly to that of Henry James’ novel The Wings of the Dove, only with the sex roles neatly reversed. Silvana reacts with horror to the suggestion – and then goes ahead and marries the Prince. A rapist he may be, but he is still a more inviting marriage prospect than Vittorio. (Shelley Winters is not an option, partly for censorship reasons and partly because she has unaccountably been run over by a car.) Once she has married the Prince, Silvana comes to realise that he is in fact a decent, caring and thoroughly sensitive bloke. Is it his fault if he got a bit too carried away by the thrill of Carnival night? Mambo now looks set to be a touching tale of a woman who has been raped falling ever so tenderly in love with the man who raped her. We might like to believe this film could not possibly become any more outrageous than it already is. If so, we reckon without those unique talents that Dino de Laurentiis employed in the script department.

There are several twists left to go in the plot of Mambo, which is remarkable given that the film is only 90 minutes long. What is also remarkable is that Silvana Mangano looks serenely beautiful throughout and never once seems tainted by the sheer awe-inspiring bad taste of everybody and everything around her. One day in the late 60s she would wake up, walk out on her crass vulgarian of a husband and make a string of classic films with intellectual left-wing directors like Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolini. (Her most famous film was Death in Venice (1971). It may have helped her exorcise some bad memories.) But Mambo, too, is an undeniable classic of a sort. It may just be wiser not to say what kind.

David Melville

War & Peace, brought to you by Wrigley’s

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , on January 9, 2019 by dcairns

There’s a great bit in King Vidor on Film Making where he talks about running out of money on WAR AND PEACE. They had a scene where Audrey Hepburn exchanges saucy glances with Vittorio Gassman at the opera. They built several opera boxes so they could film Audrey’s shots in the studio, with enough surrounding context to make it look like she was really there, but their plan for an opera house fell through.

The producers were sending Vidor to every opera house in Italy in hopes he could wrangle a venue for free, and somehow fill it with extras in period dress also for free.

Finally, King decided he wasn’t going to find an opera house, and mobilised his mighty brain. As they say in the military, If you know what your objective is, you’ll know what to do.

KV needed a reverse angle of Gassman in the stalls at the front of the opera house. And he needed a wide shot of the interior to establish it.

Elsewhere in his book, Vidor talks about his strong visual memory. He made a mental picture of what the front of an opera house looks like. What could you actually see from Audrey’s box? The orchestra would be hidden in the pit, save for the head and shoulders of the conductor, and the neck of a bass fiddle.

Vidor wasn’t entirely without resources: he had the use of a studio. They strung the only bit of red velvet they had to make part of the curtain. The audience believes it’s looking at half the curtain, because we know what size a theatre curtain must be. In fact, what we see in shot is all there was.

A row of camera platforms formed that part of the stage front not covered by the curtain. A row of lamps were strung along here to suggest footlights. A red velvet barrier masked the non-existent “orchestra pit” and the conductor was a man in a low chair peeping out over the top, dressed in the top half of a costume, while the broken neck of a bass fiddle was held in view a short distance away. Adding the sound of an orchestra tuning up completed the illusion.

Some rows of chairs were arranged, and Vidor could just barely afford twenty extras in costume. Now for the establishing shot.

Vidor had obtained a large photograph of La Scala. He wondered how much movement he would need to get into it for us to believe it was a live action shot. He sent it to Technicolor in London who were known for doing good special effects and asked them to turn it into a large painting. Then he asked them to affix little pieces of light silver foil to the images of figures in the audience, and position an electric fan where it would cause the foil to move. He advised them that they could obtain suitable foil from Selfridges in Oxford Street, who sold Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum.

The effect Vidor was hoping for was a suggestion of a dozen or so fans flickering in the audience. I don’t quite read it that way — probably the foil should have been tissue paper — but the trick is nevertheless a complete success — we read the opera house as a live action shot populated with real, full-sized three-dimensional people.

The establishing shot is at 1:27:27 in the Youtube video above, and Gassman’s reverse angle starts at 1:28:53.

WAR AND PEACE stars Eliza Dolittle (2) and her real-life husband, Stephen Orlac; with Tom Joad; Brancaleone da Norcia; Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus; Colonel Stok; Amanda Beatrice Cross; The Stranger (from Venus); Mr. Lundle; Fräulein Schneider; Alfred Dolittle (1); Lola-Lola (2); Sherlock Holmes (1984-94) and his best friend, Sherlock Homes (1970); William Mossop; and the voice of Colossus.

Watching and Waiting: Desert of the Tartars

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2014 by dcairns

A regular contributor to the blogathon, Judy Dean, tackles a true late masterpiece for us this year.

***

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“I have made eight films, and these have a common theme, which is that life has no aim other than to watch itself go by. Force of illusion cannot sustain us, for there’s no idealism strong enough… But we’re not talking about a tragedy, merely a sadness… “ (Valerio Zurlini, 1926 – 1982)

Nothing illustrates this statement more effectively than Zurlini’s last film, Desert of the Tartars, made in 1976.  Adapted from the 1940 novel by Dino Buzzati (published in English under the title The Tartar Steppe), it is set in the late 19th century and tells the story of Giovanni Drogo, an idealistic young army officer setting out for his first posting to an isolated frontier fort.

He explains on arrival that he has been assigned to the fort by mistake and wishes to apply for a transfer but is persuaded, in the interests of his career, to stay for two months.  Caught up in a web of surreal Catch 22–like bureaucracy, and clinging to the vain hope that one day there will be an attack on the fort and his dreams of military action will be realised, Drogo’s two months turn into twenty years.

Buzzati, an Italian journalist, said that “the idea of the novel came out of the monotonous night shift I was working on at Corriere della Sera in those days.  It often occurred to me that that routine would never end and so would eat up my whole life quite pointlessly.  It’s a common enough feeling, I think, for most people.”

Indeed it is.  You may not be a soldier, you may not be young, or male, but if you have ever begun a job with high hopes only to find yourself sometime later trapped by inertia, by familiar routine, aware your life is slipping away but apparently powerless to prevent it, then you will find Drogo’s situation all too familiar.

The novel, described as a surrealist masterpiece and most often compared to Kafka and Orwell, became an international best seller and several major directors, including Visconti, Lean and Antonioni, expressed an interest in adapting it for the screen.  However, the film rights were held by Jacques Perrin, the young French actor who had appeared in two of Zurlini’s early features – Girl with a Suitcase (1961) and Family Portrait (1962) – and when, in the seventies, he got together the financial backing, Perrin turned to the man he regarded as his mentor.  Perrin took the lead role as well as co-producing while Zurlini directed and is also credited with the Italian dialogue.

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To play Drogo’s fellow officers an extraordinary international and multi-lingual cast was assembled. The characters portrayed by Max von Sydow, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noiret, Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant depict different responses – ennui, stoicism, delusion, fanaticism – to the tedium of a military routine that is punctuated only by false alarms and dashed hopes.  How the casting was achieved is not entirely clear.  Was Zurlini’s reputation among actors riding high at the time?  Perrin’s character has much of the screen time and this illustrious group is given little to work with, but does so supremely well.  Trintignant, for example, playing the garrison doctor, has about four lines of dialogue and Fernando Rey, an ageing Colonel, none at all.  Did some end up on the cutting room floor?  Who knows?  If only we had a director’s cut.

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Two lesser known actors make striking contributions.  Laurent Terzieff, primarily a stage actor, plays Count von Amerling, a sickly Lieutenant, whose treatment at the hands of the sadistic Major Matti results in his death. Terzieff has as few lines as other cast members, but his face alone ought to ensure his place in the annals of cinema.

Major Matti is played by Giuliano Gemma, a former stunt man and better known at the time for sword and sandals epics, but whose performance here was to earn him a Donatello Award.

But it is not the performances, excellent though they are, for which this film is remembered, but its setting, one of the most dramatic – and ultimately tragic – in film history.

Drogo’s nationality is never made explicit, and the uniforms give nothing away.  Some commentators have assumed the fort to be located on the edges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that is surely too literal an interpretation.  The film starts conventionally enough with Drogo leaving his small-town home, having bid farewell to his mother and fiancée, and setting out on horseback across green meadows.  He says to his companion, a fellow cadet who has come to see him off, that he doesn’t know what the fort looks like, only that it is distant.  In the next shot he is traversing a featureless, rock-strewn desert of a kind unknown in Europe to the accompaniment of an eerie Morricone score.  Clearly, this will not be the standard military adventure the title sequence leads us to expect.

Zurlini, a passionate art collector and student of art history, is reported to have been inspired, in his search for the right location for the fort, by this painting of Giorgio Chirico entitled La Torre Rosso.

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But elsewhere, the choice is said to have been determined by incentives offered to filmmakers at the time by the pre-revolutionary government of Iran.  As one of Perrin’s co-producers is Bahman Farmanara, who went on the following year to produce Kiarostami’s first feature, this may well be the case.  Whatever lay behind it, the final choice was stunningly effective.  The film was shot in the magnificent citadel of Bam in South-East Iran, close to the Afghan border.  A Silk Road fortress, dating to the 5th century BC, Bam was the largest adobe complex in the world, covering an area of more that 180,000 square metres and surrounded by seven-metre high walls.

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It’s necessary to use the past tense because in 2003 the citadel was destroyed by an earthquake in which many thousands in the city lost their lives.  The film has therefore become a poignant reminder of its former glory.  Bam is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and the current regime in Iran, with international aid, is undertaking restoration work but its long-term future is far from secured.

The film achieved some commercial and critical success in Europe, especially in Italy where in 1977 it won Donatello awards for Best Film and Best Director (as well as Giuliano Gemma’s aforementioned acting prize), but it was never released in the USA.

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Zurlini committed suicide in 1982 at the age of 56, possibly as a result of financial and alcohol problems.  Here’s what Claudia Cardinale who appeared in Girl with a Suitcase said of him in an NFT interview in 2003.  “He was a wonderful director and a man of great refinement.  His apartment in Rome was full of wonderful paintings.  We became close friends; he gave me one of his paintings after that film.  Then one day in 1981, he invited me to his apartment in Rome.  When I got there the place was bare.  Everything sold.  There were only packing cases.  He ordered in a gourmet meal and we ate it off packing cases.  Then he went to his home in Venice (sic) and killed himself.”  (Other sources give his place of death as Verona.)

Never as well known outside of Italy as he deserved, Zurlini’s reputation went into a decline following his death, but despite something of a revival in the past decade, thanks to DVD releases and retrospectives, there is still a dearth of information about him (at least in English) and you will search in vain for his name in the reference books.  A re-evaluation is long overdue.

My thanks go to Rolland Man of the University of Edinburgh on whose recommendation I first saw this superb film.