Archive for Vonetta McGee

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.

Things I Read Off the Screen in “Blacula”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2012 by dcairns

BLACULA actually has quite a lot going for it. Er…

Well, it just flies past. And it seems to function without ever having decided whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or basically serious. And William Marshall is very good in the title role, also playing it simultaneously straight and camp. He has quite a sly way of doing this.

The first shot, in which a superimposed title identifies a rainswept model as Castle Dracula, has an amusing bare-faced cheek. Prosaic yet bizarre — that sums up quite a bit of this film.

There’s a good hammy turn from Charles Macauley as Dracula, a pervy racist who perishes offscreen during the centuries elided between prologue and seventies main feature, and then there’s an appalling animated title sequence by Sandy Dvore, which drew open heckling from Fiona (“Sandy Dvore your titles are terrible!”) who had never seen the film. (I had, but not for, umm, thirty years.) Basically the titles consist of various black silhouette cartoon bats, red silhouette ladies, and red blobs, randomly interacting amid what looks like an enlarged photocopy of a microscope slide of some plant stoma. Now, I do think you could make a very good movie out of that concept, but it doesn’t work as titles, somehow.

FRAME STAMPINGS. I have no idea what that means but it must be important.

The movie proper starts, and we learn that while during the 18th century everybody acted with rather a lot of camp relish, in the 70s, everybody’s just flat-out gay. Well, everybody in scene two.

The gay interior decorators import Blacula’s coffin to America and become B’s first victims. And they are persistently referred to as “faggots” by the cop characters, including the hero, ill-mannered pathologist Thalmus Rasulala (“That is the rudest nigger I ever saw!” remarks a black undertaker). When bodies start go missing, Gordon Pinsent actually pops the question, “What would anybody want with a dead faggot?” And Thalmus shoots him THIS LOOK —

You rascal, you.

But when all’s said and done, the film isn’t as homophobic (or racist) as, say, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. The gay characters are figures of fun, and one-dimensional stereotypes, but they’re not bad guys and we don’t particularly want to see them get drained. The movie could have tried a little harder to transcend the easy laughs (while KEEPING the easy laughs, obviously, it being essentially a grindhouse/drive-in schlockfest), but visibility is a good thing for any minority, as long as it’s not in the form of being targeted for abuse. We can credit BLACULA for showing a mixed-race gay couple who care for each other (pathetic outsider loner freaks were more common in movies) and who have straight friends who apparently accept them readily.

Director William Crane does few things right, but he gets mostly piquant performances. There was clearly a vast talent pool waiting to get into movies, and blaxploitation offered a key (of all the blaxploitation horrors, only BLACKENSTEIN has the kind of lousy acting associated with z-movies).

On the other hand, Crain can’t find the right height for his camera in a scene where one character sits and another stands (ALWAYS go with the sitting man, Bill!), and some of the sound recording, particularly in Transylvania, is terribly boxy and reverberant in the wide shots.

The only really intriguing bit of filmmaking is the slomo plus rapidfire intercutting when the vampirized lady cab driver attacks hook-handed misogynist morgue attendant Elisha Cook Jnr (don’t ask). That reaches a kind of peak of delirium amplified by Ketty Lester as the cabbie doing a vocal version of the PSYCHO theme — “Yaah! Yaah! Yaah!”

Elisha Cook Jnr Gets the Shaft Again.

At the end of the movie, all of the vampirized characters are accounted for EXCEPT Elisha. Maybe American International had a spin-off planned for him. CROCKULA? HOOKULA? JERKULA?

Meanwhile, over at Limerwrecks, BLACULA is celebrated in doggerel form. Twice. We’ll be “rapping” on coffin lids all week, so keep checking the site.