Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
Director: Terence Fisher

By Roderick Heath

This is the best film of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book. In fact, it’s better than the book. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels hardly stack up against his short-story gems. The novel of Hound shoots itself in the foot by blowing the cover on its villain halfway through, then stumbling through an anti-climactic last act. It also avoids examining undercurrents the story presents, even copping out of the science/superstition clash that drives the narrative, only flirting with the ideas comically when Bishop Frankland threatens to sue amateur anthropologist Dr. Mortimer for body-snatching in his digs at Neolithic sites. But Doyle fails to bring anything to a point. He even writes Holmes out of half of the novel.

Armed with a tight screenplay by John Bryant, Fisher’s film charges with force into the story’s potential. Opening with a typically thunderous James Bernard score timed with lightning bursts, the camera closes in slowly on the matte-painted Baskerville Hall. The velvet-threat tones of Francis de Wolff, playing Mortimer, intones the legend of the hound. In the 17th century, a tenant farmer is tortured in the Hall by aristocratic cads because he stood between his daughter—imprisoned upstairs—and Sir Hugo Baskerville (played with perfect sleazy elegance by David Oxley). Baskerville, for a coup de grace, roasts the man in the fireplace.

Sir Hugo has to pay up on a wager to his fellow noble scoundrels on how long the man would last, and being the gentleman he is, he proposes paying with the girl. Proceeding upstairs, he finds the girl has absconded out the window via the ivy-covered walls. Hugo orders his hunting hounds released to chase her down, and sets out on horseback, crying “May the hounds of hell take me if I can’t hunt her down!” He catches her in the fog among wreathed ruins of an abbey and stabs her death with relish. He is then confronted by a growling, unseen monster that devours him greedily amid the creep’s blood-curdling screams.

Having gotten our attention, Fisher dissolves to Holmes’ study as Mortimer concludes his reading. Unlike the novel’s agreeable geek, this Mortimer is a fat, faintly shifty self-publicist who responds huffily to Holmes’ less-than-enthralled air. Peter Cushing’s Holmes is introduced, his pencil-thin form leisurely lifting his hand with a gasp of vision not at Mortimer’s words but to play a chess move that’s occurred to him. Watson is played by Andre Morell, who had portrayed Nigel Kneale’s scientific titan Quatermass on television, making it clear he’s not a Nigel Bruce buffoon but a quick-witted, if slightly old-boyish, colleague.

Dr. Mortimer engages Holmes to solve the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville with a litany of relishable clues, such as the footprints of a gigantic hound and the fact that Sir Charles tiptoed (“But he wasn’t tiptoeing,” Cushing intones, “He was running, Watson, running for his life until he burst his heart!”). Holmes is also to protect Sir Charles’ heir, Sir Henry (Christopher Lee), who, it soon turns out, needs protection badly. There’s a stowaway tarantula in his boot, that crawls onto his shoulder (suggesting, in one shot, a large lump of lint), and is disposed of by Holmes who hits it like he’s killing an anaconda. Though hardly dangerous to anyone else, the spider could have been fatal to Sir Henry, with hiss inherited heart condition. Holmes announces he must stay in town, so he has Watson accompany Mortimer and Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall.

First seen in delicately menacing sunlight with Bernard’s eerie oboe scoring, Dartmoor soon becomes a nightmare-drenched wonderland. There’s the convicted killer of prostitutes Selden (David Birks) loose from Dartmoor Prison, for piquance. There’s dingbat local minister and entomologist Bishop Frankland (Miles Malleson), for comic relief. Or is he? Did the tarantula come from his collection? Why does Mrs. Barrymore (Helen Goss), wife of the trusty housekeeper (John LeMesurier), weep at night? Why is Selden signaling to the hall? What are saturnine farmer Stapleton (Ewen Solon) and his enfant sauvage daughter Cecile (Marla Landi) up to?

Despite the noisy music and equally loud color, Fisher’s films are marked by a cool mixture of poetic realism and tightly built sequences, and, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a riot of florid atmosphere--rotting leaves, jagged stone, dawn-lit moors, rustling silk, blood-red coats, Marla Landi’s earthy skin, dripping mines, lanterns, and black bogs. Fisher’s Hammer films revitalised British cinema and rode point for a revolution of Horror popularity that only ran out of steam some 25 years later. Fisher began his directorial career in stultifying quota quickies. His one early work of note was So Long At The Fair (1951), featuring Dirk Bogarde and Jean Simmons, a fascinating mystery based on a great urban myth. The film sits heavily under the starchy influence of the standard period film, and would have benefited from Fisher’s later, rowdier touch.

Indeed, before the Fisher-Hammer explosion, British genre cinema, though rich and fascinating, lacked the damn-the-torpedoes drive of their American brethren. Suddenly, that WWII-era, stiff-upper-lip veneer cracked, and out came a bloody-gorged beauty, luxuriating in sex, violence, pounding melodrama, black humor, and with a coherent thematic agenda. Like the “Angry Young Man” tales that were emerging at the same time, Fisher’s early Hammer films jumped with the eagerness of a terrier on rats onto the skeletons in the English cupboard--particularly sex, class, and religion. Hollywood and European Horror of the ’20s and ’30s, only took cues from Freud and surrealism. This hitherto unexplored element in the Gothic genre became, in the hands of ’60s Horror practitioners, at its best a potent vessel for revisionist views of history, power relations, and morality shifts.

Dracula, for instance, the invading foreign seducer preying on the flower of English femininity, was refashioned by Fisher and Lee as a suave precursor of James Bond, a vampire Heathcliff, a variant on the handsome ruffians Stewart Granger played years before. Amidst the generic explosion the success of the early Hammer productions generated, Fisher’s films laid down the blueprint for a movement away from purely metaphoric horror into more socially and psychologically aware works. Whilst too many horror stories are reflexively conservative creations, serving up doses of misogyny, fear of sexual deviancy, and needful conformity, Fisher began a trend that would be expanded on by later directors such as Peter Sasdy, Michael Reeves, Gordon Hessler, Hans Geissendoerfer (in his vampirism-is-Hitlerism parable Jonathan [1968]), Roman Polanski, and George Romero. Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, written by Anthony Shaffer and starring Lee, created as a parody/tribute, inverted Fisher’s style by replacing Gothic chic with deceptive folkish whimsy, but reverently employed his intellectual approach. Much later, Fisher would be paid homage by Neil Jordan with his remarkably bizarre fantasy The Company of Wolves (1984) and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999).

Fisher’s films show a consistent fascination with the relationship of Manichaeistic forces: good and evil and their fraught relationship. As axiomatic as this fascination sounds in the genre context, it is, in fact, hardly so. Some directors, Jean Rollin for instance, regarded traditional “good” as an idiotic blind alley. Others, from Murnau through to Polanski and Romero, regard it as fragile and ineffective. Still others, the true exploitation directors, conform to standard moralist structures even as they rejoice and celebrate what they purport to condemn. In Fisher’s films, good and evil stand entwined, evil usually rather more attractive than good, and fatally so.

Fisher’s moral eye was unpredictable, original, and inescapable. He turned tragic titan Victor Frankenstein into a ruthless, destructive sociopath, a meddler so driven to discover that everything, even human life, becomes incidental. He is light years from Colin Clive’s preening motherly male, instead a manifestation of the alienation found in Edward Teller’s disinterested statement about the detonation of the atomic bomb he helped create: “Who wants to see that? It’s just a big bang.” Fisher then became the only director to do anything interesting with Dracula’s nemesis, Van Helsing, turning him from aged savant into dashing man of iron, comforting in his fearless resolve and paternal, caring strength, but frightening in his puritanical brutality and willingness to crush the leech-like sensuality of vampires (usually women). As well as the first servings of truly in-your-face gore in his stakings, Fisher also offered a clear statement of the painful relation between “good” and “repression,” an indictment of for-your-own-good regimes.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes stands in the same position as Van Helsing
and Dr. Frankenstein as an arbiter of rationalism in an ignorant, intellectually sluggish world; he is Frankenstein with a moral compass. He clears away the shadows and reveals the greasepaint and old rope used by Stapleton to make Sir Henry think the past is quite literally haunting him. Holmes is (here at least) a less interesting figure than Cushing’s Frankenstein and Van Helsing, except in his haughty, egotistical streak, a strong trait in the stories, more emphasized here than any other film.

The film is most crucially interesting in remoulding the relationship of Sir Henry and Stapleton’s daughter (in the novel, his actual wife, forced to pose as his offspring to make his potential future claims easier). Casting Lee as the descendent of the depraved Sir Hugo marks him as a powerful, imperious, sexually magnetic presence. As such, far more meaningful than the novel’s pallid baronet, Sir Henry is attracted to the gleaming-eyed, sullen-mouthed, Spanish-born Cecile Stapleton (Marla Landi), who provokes and yet runs from his stirred lust. Sir Henry is cursed with the same rapacious instincts as his ancestor, but so is Cecile--her fire is the Baskerville genes sharpened by deprivation and centuries of rage held by the peasantry towards their aristocratic exploiters, to their deadliest, most sexually sadistic point. A femme fatale to the max, Cecile is Sir Hugo returned in his victim’s body.

Likewise, Stapleton (Ewen Solon)--in the novel an insidious, devious naturalist, a false-benign opposite of Holmes--here plays the gentleman farmer but crippled (by an inherited trait of Sir Hugo’s, a plot point) and down-at-heel, generating his evil plot with native cunning rather than intellectual prowess. The Stapletons’ revenge enacts the classic “return of the repressed.” In the film’s breathlessly well-staged finale (apart from a less-than-terrifying mutt), Cecile, having lured Sir Henry to the Abbey, the ruins of which are, throughout the film, a bullring-like battleground of good and evil, and turns their passionate tryst to a mocking tirade in preparation to serve Sir Henry up for dinner. Doyle had a singular running theme of abused women in his stories--in one, a maltreated wife fills her villainous husband with the entire magazine of a revolver, to Holmes’ and Watson’s unblinking approval--and characterized Miss Stapleton as a terrified dove trapped by her husband. Fittingly, where in the book it is Stapleton who is sucked into Grimpen Mire, here Cecile is last seen sliding into the muck. The evil of the Baskervilles, their greedy sexuality, dies with her.

Fisher, though not as decoratively sophisticated as Bava, was great at pace and action--two elements that directors with infinitely larger budgets and resources can never get in proper balance. None of his films slow for a second, whilst remaining as coherent as filmmaking can get. His trademark touches include vigorous close-ups and deep-focus dioramic shots that bind together elements and crystallise the action. Fisher expanded his intensely rhythmic approach to editing (his first job in pictures), and The Hound of the Baskervilles stomps on its tackier production elements to create a film of racing verve.

Hound was a comparative box office failure, because the audience resented a lack of monsters, so a planned series of Holmes films did not join the painfully distended Frankenstein and Dracula cycles. Fisher continued provided visitations on traditional themes, though his romantic variation on The Phantom of the Opera (1962) proved a big flop and stalled his career. Generally out of place as Hammer films became sillier, sexier, and more violent, Fisher served up one more bona fide classic and the last word on his Manichaeistic themes, The Devil Rides Out (1967), from a Dennis Wheatley novel. He turned in a couple of more half-hearted Frankenstein flicks and the limp The Lost Continent (1968) before retiring and dying in 1980. l

A small note of trivia: Michael Hawkins, who plays the most prominent of Sir Hugo’s cronies, is the father of Christian Slater.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Excellent Cadavers (2005)
Director: Marco Turco

In 1992, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two magistrates who had been working for more than a decade to break the back of the Sicilian Mafia, were murdered in spectacular bombings that outraged the people of Sicily and the rest of Italy. The saga of how they got to their fateful deaths, what they accomplished, how they were betrayed, and what has happened in the subsequent decade comprise the documentary Excellent Cadavers.

Excellent Cadavers is a 1995 book by American journalist Alexander Stille, and it formed the basis for a 1999 film of the same name. This Italian documentary uses Stille as narrator who is shown retracing the steps he took to write his book, with incidents he recounted told in "flashback" through archival film footage and interviews with individuals who knew the players and witnessed the various events of this dramatic period in Italian history. A brief history of the modern Mafia emerges as well.

Before World War II, the Mafia (referred to often in the film as Cosa Nostra) operated mainly in the countryside of Sicily. The Allied governments--as usual, incredibly shortsighted and naive--used the local Mafia leaders to keep order right after the war, and the organization got a taste of the money that could be made by expanding into the cities. During the 1970s, mafiosi from the rural region of Corleone began a bloody extermination campaign to rid themselves of rivals for the lucrative heroin trade to the United States. At this time, Giovanni Falcone a magistrate from Palermo who was working in Sicily began a painstaking investigation into Mafia crimes and their connections with the Palermo business community. The murders of mafiosi, policemen, and magistrates continued.

Eventually, a group called the Anti-Mafia Pool, whose most prominent members were Falcone, Borsellino, and magistrate Antonino Caponnetto, amassed enough evidence to hand down indictments--thousands of pages of them put together while they were holed up for their own protection in a prison on the island of Sardinia. They were aided by the detailed information provided by a Mafia family head, Tommaso Bruscetta, who had been captured in 1982 in Brazil where he had fled after escaping from prison during a day release. Bruscetta had suffered the loss of many family members during the reign of terror of the Corleonesi, and informing was his form of revenge.

What became known as the maxi trial began in 1986 in a football-field-sized bunker built to withstand a missle attack. Again, Falcone and Borsellino were virtual prisoners along with the 474 indicted mafiosi who watched the proceedings from cells that lined the entire rear of the courtroom. At its end two years later, the trial resulted in 360 convictions. Only a handful withstood the appeals process, and only after the Mafia-corrupted magistrate Corrado Carnevale, the "Sentence Killer," was forced to resign from the appellate court upon revelations of serious ethics violations. In 1992, the Mafia got their revenge. They killed Salvo Lima, the mayor of Palermo, for failing to halt the maxi trial, and finally got to Falcone and Borsellino. Upon the death of the latter, an extremely emotional Caponnetto was quoted on camera as saying, "It's all over."

Although the public rage was intense and a witness protection program that Falcone and Borsellino had urged for years was instituted in response to their murders, the decade that followed, which included the indictment of seven-time Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti for Mafia activities, saw the work of the Anti-Mafia Pool all but dismantled by corrupt politicians. Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister in the mid 1990 and from 2001-2006, clearly sided with the Mafia.

Turco's documentary goes into great detail about how Falcone basically put together a database of Mafia transactions by hand. As a Sicilian, Falcone understood the horrible toll Mafia activity took on the local economy and well-being of average Sicilians. The horrifying bloodbaths that periodically erupted--a murder occurred in Palermo every three days during 1982--are brought vividly to the screen for the outrages they are. One nauseating photo taken by Letizia Battaglia, a photojournalist who Stille speaks with intensively during the film, shows the severed head of a man sitting on the front seat of a car. After looking at such photos and viewing the arrogant, self-pitying mafiosi whining inside their courtroom cages, Falcone's ultimately fatal crusade against the Mafia doesn't seem the act of a madman or a careerist, as Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, the coiner of the phrase "excellent cadavers," seemed to imply in one comment about the maxi trial. Falcone, Borsellino, and the rest of the Anti-Mafia Pool were courageous fighters against a persistent cancer that the majority of Italians would like to see eradicated.

I felt that I got to know Falcone and Borsellino and understand the rhythms of their lives at this time through their own words and those of their intimates. I had seen the outside of the courtroom bunker and knew about the maxi trial, but to actually see inside, to listen to Bruscetta from inside his bulletproof booth denounce one of the defendants who ordered his brother's death, was a powerful experience. I had known in my gut and from reading Sciascia's novels about the Mafia (most notably The Day of the Owl) that the Mafia is not "cool" or honorable. I never watched The Sopranos precisely because of my disdain for these thugs. How they work--and that was laid bare by Bruscetta--is of interest, if only to find effective ways to cut them apart. In Italy, the people had the will, but not the power. Unfortunately, politicians find these criminals useful, and it was politicians whose visible rejection of Falcone for promotion within the criminal justice system made him vulnerable. The results are heartbreaking not only for him, but also for the Sicilian and Italian people.

Although the use of Stille doesn't work very well, this film is still quite effective. It covers a lot of territory in a judiciously edited manner. We get enough information to make sense of the complex relationships and proceedings, but not so much that it becomes confusing. People who are very familiar with the maxi trials may not hear anything new, but the power of the images Turco put together and the pain of the people who knew Falcone and Borsellino should help them get beyond their knowledge to the emotional core of this story. The most heart-wrenching scene in the film is the public funeral of the police killed along with Falcone. The widow of one of the fallen men tries so hard to speak of love, peace, and forgiveness, but is compelled again and again to acknowledge that the Mafia has no love. "There is no love here," she chokes through her tears to her adversaries hidden in the crowd.

As a citizen of Chicago, one name kept running through my head as I watched this fine film--Mayor Richard M. Daley. His absolute power in the city and his administration's corruption (from which the Mafia likely benefits) share a lot in common with the Italian cancer. But it doesn't seem to bother a lot of people who are getting theirs in "the city that works." Public outcry, which seems highly unlikely, may be the only thing to make justice more than a motto cut into a frieze. l

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Winchester '73 (1950)
Director: Anthony Mann

High-Spade Frankie Wilson: Did you ever wonder what he'd think about you hunting down Dutch Henry?

Lin McAdam: He'd understand. He taught me to hunt.

Wilson: Not men. Hunting for food, that's alright. Hunting a man to kill him? You're beginning to like it.

McAdam: That's where you're wrong. I don't like it. Some things a man has to do, so he does 'em.

This pointed exchange between James Stewart as rancher-turned-avenger Lin McAdam and Millard Mitchell as his best friend outlines the contradictions that animate Winchester '73 and make it a forerunner to the complex Westerns that were to follow, most notably the acclaimed John Ford film The Searchers (1956).

Anthony Mann is probably best known to film buffs as a noir director. The year he made Winchester '73, his first Western, was also the year he directed one of the best noirs ever made--Side Street. His transition from a genre that owes so much to the German Expressionism that Mann, as a German, was so adept at gives a perverse twist to the most American of genres. Although the title card for Winchester '73 shows a wide-open West with two tiny figures riding along the top of a ridge, this film is shot in the classic claustrophobic fashion of noir, with noirish betrayal at every turn the fuel that stokes its story.

The film begins in Dodge City, now lawful and gunless thanks to the ministrations of Sheriff Wyatt Earp, whose aged, genial portrayal by Will Geer is a strange one to eyes accustomed to young and vigorous impersonations by the likes of Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. A large number of gun slingers have gathered in town (and been requested to check their firearms at the door) to enter a sharpshooting contest for which the prize is a Winchester repeater rifle, called "One in a Thousand" due to its astonishing perfection. Lin McAdam is one of the contestants, as is a man who calls himself Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). Lin and Dutch Henry come face to face in the saloon where registration for the event is going on, and the tension between them, shown in extreme close-ups of both men, registers immediately and erupts into a fight. Earp breaks the men up, and tells them they can take up where they left off after the contest. He takes Lin's name down, and Lin makes a point to say that it's his real name, unlike others who feel they need to take another one. This is the first signal of a betrayal, and it most certainly was aimed at Dutch Henry.

During the shooting contest, Lin and Dutch Henry fire bull's eyes in identical patterns with their rifles, and end up as the finalists vying for the prize. Moving the targets further away does nothing to affect their accuracy, so they take to firing at coins tossed in the air. Eventually, Lin says if he can't hit a postage stamp stuck to a coin he has already shot through, he'll cede the contest to Dutch Henry. Lin succeeds and is declared the winner. His feeling of victory is short-lived, however. Dutch Henry breaks into Lin's room and wrestles the gun away from him, nearly choking Lin in the process. He and his men ride out of town quickly without picking up their guns from Earp's office. Thus, by necessity, their next stop is a gun dealer. Lin and High-Spade ride in relentless pursuit. It's not the Winchester Lin wants so much--it's Dutch Henry's head on a platter. It's what he "has to do," the manly code of Western justice that, in Mann's hands, plays like the inescapable fate of a noir antihero.

Dutch Henry is suckered at the gun dealer's by a card hustler and gun runner who wins all his money at poker and the Winchester, too. As he rides off, Dutch Henry follows in murderous pursuit. He's too late, however, to get either his gold or the Winchester. When he catches up with the gun runner, the man is dead, robbed and scalped by Indians unhappy with the quality of the guns he has brought to them for sale. It is their intention to massacre the government soldiers on their land using repeating rifles, just as the Sioux did only weeks before to General Custer and his men.

Lola (Shelley Winters), a young woman Lin met in Dodge City as she was run out of town by Earp for prostitution, is riding with her fiance Steve (Charles Drake) to a ranch he wants to buy for them. They are ambushed by the Indians who killed the gun runner, and Steve abandons Lola in sheer terror--yet another betrayal. Fortunately for them both, he sees some U.S. cavalry men in a nearby valley. He returns for Lola, who is whipping her team for all they're worth, and they ride to what they think is the safety of the encampment. Unfortunately, the Indians have had the soldiers pinned down all day getting ready to attack. Into this trap ride Lin and High-Spade, who clue the soldiers--replacements for the current troops at the fort--into Indian fighting and likely methods of attack. The commanding officer Sgt. Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen) says he could have used men like them at Bull Run. Lin said they were there, all right, but fighting on the other side, a reminder of the betrayal of Americans against their own kind. The Indians are routed and the chief killed. Lola, attracted to Lin, asks him for a bullet before he leaves. This phallic symbol signals Lola's in-kind abandonment of Steve. The Winchester the chief had been using is recovered by Sgt. Wilkes, but Lin misses his chance to reclaim it. Steve accepts it instead.

We leave Lin's quest behind to follow Lola and Steve to the ranch house he wants to buy. The sound of gunfire and horse's hooves interrupt their tortured conversation about Steve's abandonment of Lola to the Indians. An outlaw gang breaks into the house and holds them and the wife and child of the house's owner hostage against a posse of lawmen who have chased them there. Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) takes a fancy to Lola, humiliates Steve by forcing him to do woman's work, and eventually kills him. In a strangely hilarious scene, the posse sends a burning wagon into the side of the house to flush Dean and his gang out. The macho code of Westerns by which the gun reigns supreme stands in ridiculous contrast to a family's home being destroyed. There is an unintentional reminder for modern viewers in Dean's nickname, Waco, of a "successful" assault on "outlaws" by the feds at Waco, Texas, that ended in mass destruction. Where's the law in that?

Eventually, we catch up with Dutch Henry when Waco, with Lola in tow, meets up with him for a bank robbery. Waco has taken the Winchester from Steve, and Dutch Henry demands it back. To pull the robbery, the gang rides into town where Lin and High-Spade also have gone believing Dutch Henry might be headed there. Lola insults Waco, Lin gets to defend her, and Waco and several of his men end up dead. Dutch Henry, however, escapes, with Lin in hot pursuit. A final shoot-out in the hills, with Dutch Henry--actually Lin's brother Matthew--firing on Lin with his own Winchester, and Lin trying to outmaneuver Dutch Henry in among the crags of the narrow cliffs is a symphony of claustrophobia.

In Anthony Mann's West, there is no love. Brotherly love has been twisted into hate and vengeance. Lola's devotion to Steve was questionable even before he skunked out on her, and she seems to accept her abduction by Waco with the almost casual equanimity of a woman who's never been too choosy about the company she keeps. Her attaction to Lin is animalistic, like a good femme fatale who doesn't really get to do her thing in this genre, as is his to her. The actors have a wonderful chemistry that somewhat defies Stewart's screen image. Winters was gorgeous, and she always had a strong sensuality, but under Mann's direction, cinematographer William Daniels photographs Stewart to look sexier than I've ever seen him.

Mann turns the Western on its head in the subversive way German directors always tackled American myths. Long before it became fashionable, the senseless violence of the Old West is made to look childish and a sheer waste. I love that Wyatt Earp resembles everybody's kindly grandfather, as though Mann is showing what the West without its myths would look like. Frankly, it looks awfully boring, and gives us another clue about our love affair with the gun and a macho code of conduct.

High-Spade's conversation with Lin, quoted up top, really shows up the code. Lin is avenging his father, but High-Spade questions whether that's what his father would have wanted. That doesn't matter. You have to do what you think is expected of you by your society, no matter that it means a betrayal of biblical proportions. Lin doesn't have a plan for his future after he guns down Dutch Henry; that's not part of the myth. Don't fighting men just keep fighting? I do believe Lin when he says he doesn't enjoy it; nobody likes to be pushed around by a life script. We may infer a happy ending, but in true noir tradition, there is no real sense of happiness or future as the screen goes to black--only emptiness and a perfect gun without a purpose. l

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Public Defender (1931)
Director: J. Walter Ruben

A paradox exists in the world of the film buff. Buffs consider cinema an art form that transcends mere entertainment or box office value. Yet, buffs are constantly looking for corners of film making that few people would give a second look--and those corners often contain the throwaway entertainments of yesteryear. To the average filmgoer, a bad film is just a bad film. To a film buff, a bad film might have other rewards in what it reveals about tastes, technological capabilities, social norms, and fashions and decor of a particular period. A bad film might also give a collector of a particular star's filmography a missing link or insight into their favorite performer. It is with these thoughts in mind that I review a bad film that I'm very happy I saw--The Public Defender.

The Public Defender--not really bad, but rather mediocre--is a fascinating film to me for several reasons. The year it was made was interesting for the film industry, in general, and for its star Richard Dix, in particular. In 1931, Dix not only made this low-budget quickie, but also starred in the acclaimed Western, Cimarron. He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance, and Cimarron won a slew of Oscars, including
Best Picture, and stamped cinema history with one of its most famous scenes--the thrilling stampede of would-be landowners during the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. The film also is an early talkie, and witnessing the challenges of this new technology has merit. In addition, the story of The Public Defender could have been ripped off for a hero who has been fodder for many an entertainment up to the current day--Batman. Finally, Richard Dix is an actor who has been a compelling presence to me ever since I saw him in a superb silent film about the plight of Native American veterans of World War I, The Vanishing American (1925).

The Public Defender begins in the board room of a bank, where board member Eugene Gerry (Emmett King) is being arrested for misappropriation of funds. Gerry swears his innocence, but his colleagues turn a deaf ear to his pleas. In fact, they are the real thieves and are using him as the fall guy. A short time later, one of the conspirators is robbed of some business papers. The only clue to his assailant is a card left at the scene that says "The Reckoner."

The other conspirators are at a country club, talking in private, when rich playboy Pike Winslow (Dix) enters the club following a couple of months of traveling after quitting his job to live off his large inheritance. He is there to dine with Barbara Gerry (Shirley Grey) and her disapproving Aunt Matilda (Nella Walker). Gerry laments that their home and its contents will be sold to pay restitution to the bank. Winslow offers the use of an apartment of a friend who will be going abroad and is looking for a suitable tenant to sublet it; of course, the apartment actual is his. Winslow also attends the estate auction and secretly buys some of the Gerry treasures to return to the family. He is sure Eugene Gerry is innocent and has been about trying to prove it--as The Reckoner. His date with Ms. Gerry is a cover to allow him to snoop around the bank partners.

The parallel with Bruce Wayne/Batman (which did not appear until 1939) is unmistakable. Winslow even has an Alfred-like "Professor" played by Boris Karloff and a strong-arm "Doc" (Paul Hurst) who forms a rough parallel to Robin. Winslow constantly pesters the police inspector 'Mal' O'Neil (Alan Roscoe) for a deputy's badge, suggesting the alliance Batman would form with Commissioner Gordon. He also never steals anything of monetary value; he is only after evidence of the crime and frame-up.

Within its low budget, The Public Defender manages a few scenes to suggest the opulent surroundings of its main characters, particularly the auction inside the Gerry home. Most of the sets, however, are very plain, and the costumes might have come from the actors' own closets. When characters walk on wooden floors, every footfall is loud and clear. Improvements in microphone equipment and placing were works in progress. Characters appear and disappear with a single line of explanation, and many actions happen only to set up a climactic scene. Even disapproving Aunt Matilda has a change of heart toward Winslow that just happens. The acting is barely workmanlike from most of the cast.

Even Dix seems a bit wooden. His is a body and face made more for the silent screen. His voice has a strange, muffled quality to it I first noted from my viewing of him in the RKO/Val Lewton production The Ghost Ship (1943). Yet he went on to a long career at RKO and beyond, winning a new and loyal audience as the star of seven movies based on the mystery radio series "The Whistler." Indeed, The Public Defender has a serial feel, and serials were an important staple in the Hollywood line-up that persists today on television shows such as 24 and in movie series like Star Wars. While I can't call it a good movie, The Public Defender moves briskly and entertains, a tribute to what the movie factory could produce within its small budgets and tight shooting schedules. Yeoman directors like J. Walter Ruben aren't auteurs, but they are professionals who could teach modern film makers a trick or two.

In reviewing this film, I'm violating a rule I set for Ferdy on Films not to write about films that are not available in home viewing formats. It is only because Turner Classic Movies had a Richard Dix film festival that I got a chance to see it. Still, I think that a discussion of The Public Defender is instructive to provide a way to "read" films for more than their mere entertainment value. Keep your eye on TCM listings for future showings and try it yourself. You might just like it. l

Friday, September 08, 2006

Hamsun (1996)
Director: Jan Troell

This morning, as I got online to check my e-mail, my ISP's infotainment service, Comcast News, flashed a headline that caught my attention: "Chicken Dies, Wife Shoots Husband." Clicking through, I was greeting with the following opening paragraph:

"Chesire, Ore. - A woman shot her husband in the back after he killed her pet chicken, the Lane County sheriff's deputies said. Deputies said they were sure that Mary Gray, 58, intended to shoot her husband, Stephen Gray, 43. They weren't certain if the husband meant to fire at the chicken."

I immediately thought of Hamsun.

Like the opening of that "news" story, Hamsun begins with an old man sitting at a desk and becoming increasingly annoyed with the cluckings of a chicken in the yard outside his window. He spritely races after the beast and beats it to death with the handle of his cane. His wife runs out to examine the remains of her pet and cries bitterly that everything, even her chicken, has to be sacrificed to his genius. The old man turns and walks unrepentantly back to his room, packs his bags, and moves to a hotel for some peace and quiet to work on his new novel.

The man is Knut Hamsun (Max von Sydow), chronicler of the soul of Norway and the country's pride and joy as the winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature. The woman is Marie (Ghita Nørby), 22 years his junior, a former actress who constantly complains about giving up her promising career to marry Hamsun. She is a lonely woman who finds herself married more to an icon than a man and green with envy over his fame. The time is the late 1930s, and the specter of war in Europe has Norwegians worried about maintaining their neutrality and guarding their own safety.

Into this climate comes a man whose name is now synonymous with "traitor," Vidkun Quisling (Sverre Anker Ousdal). He is in the rural village near the Hamsuns' farm to speak about the principles of national socialism. The turnout for his talk is quite small, but one important person is in the audience--Marie. She is quite taken with the Nazi emphasis on the importance of women in nation building; she doesn't seem to take in that this role is primarily to maintain the purity of the national bloodline. Quisling actively courts Marie as a way to get to the great man himself and attempt to secure his endorsement. When Hamsun learns that Germany is against England, a country he hates for causing starvation in Norway during World War I, he signs on to the Nazi cause as well. Marie, who is fluent in German, takes frequent trips to Germany to hobnob with the Nazi elite. She thoroughly enjoys shining under her own spotlight.

The Nazi takeover of Norway is complete by mid 1940, with Quisling at the helm and Hamsun a visible supporter in the flesh and in his editorials and letters to the editor of the nation's most prominent newspapers. It is not long, of course, until the Nazis start their systematic oppression of the Norwegians. The outcry of a sell-out among the Norwegians puts Hamsun on the defensive. He is hounded by the press, his books are thrown into the streets by his neighbors, and worst of all, his own concerns about Hitler's broken promises for Norwegian sovereignty alongside Germany worry him greatly.

He decides to visit the Fuhrer and meets the infamous leader in his mountain retreat, Berghof, where he is kept waiting by a scornful Hitler (Ernst Jacobi) and his minions. Hitler attempts to flatter and admire Hamsun into making the visit little more than a courtesy call, but Hamsun presses his cause for Norwegian sovereignty, reminding Hitler of his promises to Norway in exchange for its support. Hitler bristles and abruptly ends the visit, nearly throwing Hamsun out on his ear. Hamsun, thoroughly disillusioned, returns to Norway, Marie, and their troubled marriage.

From this brief description, it would be easy to think that Hamsun is more a political history than anything else. In fact, however, the film is chiefly occupied with the dysfunctional marriage between Knut and Marie and the dysfunctional family it spawned. It is easy to imagine that Hamsun was attracted to Marie's vivacity as a contrast to his own reclusiveness, as well as her purported physical attractiveness, handsomely realized even in middle age by Ghita Nørby. But the marriage is a classic oil-and-water affair. A writer's life is often a solitary and selfish one into which a live wire like Marie rarely can fit. In the case of a symbol like Hamsun, the private persona can be all but obliterated. When the Hamsun children show up to try to patch their parents' marriage back together, childhood resentments against the father who was always absent, even when he was in the room, bubble up and over. Anette Hoff, as Knut's favorite child Ellinor, gives a sympathetic reading on the old man in contrast to her siblings' bitterness, but nothing seems to resolve. Eventually, Knut and Marie reunite to continue their inevitable dance until death.

Swedish director Jan Troell is best known, if he is known at all in places outside of Scandinavia, for his 1971 television miniseries The Emigrants. He has a real feel for Scandinavian history and manages to work an alchemy on his cast that is truly surprising, considering his two leads, von Sydow and Nørby, spoke their native Swedish and Danish, respectively, throughout filming. Jacobi as Hitler is one of the most effective screen Fuhrers I've seen, bringing his malevolence and egomania to life quickly and ferociously. Hamsun's reputation was nearly ruined in Norway because of his wartime alliance, and the film suggests that it was his naivete, ultranationalism, and insularity that may have been to blame for his choice. Nonetheless, though Hamsun seems thoroughly reviled throughout much of this picture, von Sydow takes pains to show the vulnerable and often bewildered old man beneath the prim, three-piece suit. I found Hamsun to be a singular and convincing portrait of an artist who paved his own road to hell. This husband definitely meant to kill the chicken. l

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lèvres de Sang (Lips of Blood, 1975)
Director: Jean Rollin

By Roderick Heath

Jean Rollin, now 69, is a whole grain cinema anarchist and one of the few fine French horror directors. He began with homemade shorts and rose all the way to directing homemade features. His films skirt soft-core pornography and, when circumstances require, plunge right in. But he’s also one of the most authentic poets every to take up the art form. Rollin debut feature, Le Viol du Vampire (1967) arose from several shorts he was asked to make for a French distributor who needed to fill out a bill sporting a short American vampire film. Rollin The resulting film was a predictably uneven, but attention-winning mish-mash of surrealism, Grand Guignol, and black humor.

Rollin became one of the few true heirs to arise from a long tradition of Parisian underground cinema whose forebears include Feuillade and Bunuel, as well as French Gothic literature (Leroux was his favorite author), and the vast, semivisible world of European S&M comics (one of the major artists of which, Druillet, designed Rollins’ posters and appeared in Le Viol). Visually, Rollin’s films, with their semiclothed females arranged in geometric forms and intensely fetishist poses, recreate that style vividly. As in Feuillade and the early Dali-Bunuel collaborations, he utilised Paris, that marvellous free set, and set up against it the most bizarre and impossible images he could concoct.

His masterpiece is Lèvres de Sang. When I say masterpiece I maintain proportions. It’s not a film as free from defects and soaring in its ambitions as Les Enfants du Paradis or The Seven Samurai. In the murky realm of '70s Euro-cinema, experimental, genre, and off-beat directors maintained their careers by spicing their films with nudity to satisfy fleapit theatre crowds and the distributors who serviced them. For Rollin, this was hardly a problem; he was dedicated eroticist, and his films enact the sexual aspects most horror films depict only metaphorically. They’re adult fairy tales, dressed in gothic-erotic clothing. To see how good Rollin was at this, it’s an easy task to compare the unembarrassed sexuality of Lèvres de Sang with any late-period Hammer film, say, Twins Of Evil (1972), or, to aim higher, see how he outclasses the efforts of Ken Russell. This is not to say Rollins’ films are free of gratuity. On the contrary, there’s so much gratuity you stop noticing.

In Lèvres de Sang, Rollin presents an uncompromisingly direct study of the incestuous that underlies many vampire mythology which has corrupt ancestors heave off the lids of their tombs and spread disease and death among their descendants. Simultaneously, Lèvres de Sang succeeds in capturing a note of wistful longing for the scenes, hints, landscapes, people that remain on the very horizon of childhood memory, which can, thanks to some small evocation--the right tint of light, a smell, a familiar face--lance right through your adult perceptions and memories to present unfulfilled chances and unanswered questions, even mysteries.

The film begins in a dank crypt where a middle-aged woman with a girlish face, wearing a veil and furs, is supervising men who are placing in the crypt several coffins. Cut to an exterior shot of a ruined chateau--a pull-back reveals it’s just a photo on the wall of a Parisian apartment, where a Bunuel-boring society party is occurring. A man in his thirties, tall, blonde-haired Frédéric (Jean-Lou Philippe, who also cowrote the screenplay with Rollin), is stricken in fascination by the image to the point of ignoring his girlfriend. He shakes himself from his reverie and finds her lounging on a divan with a black-haired woman, who, in reply to Frédéric’s compliment of her perfume, suggests a pretty smell is like a memory or a beautiful woman, the most precious and transitory of thrills.

Frédéric drops into a memory. As a boy, lost at night, he entered the ruin. Dwelling within it was a teenaged girl (Anne Briand) with short brown hair, a pale face, red lips, and draped in white clothes, who greeted him with delicate affection and settled him down to sleep for the night. In the morning, before dawn, she woke him up to send him on his way home. As he rushed from the ruin, he shut the gate, locking her in, but he called back that he loved her and would return to free her.

Frédéric’s girlfriend finds his preoccupation sufficient to walk off in a huff. Frédéric asks guests about the picture, but no one knows the place it depicts. Frédéric appeals to his mother, who we recognise is the woman from the opening, and tries to explain the striking memory the photo evokes. The girl haunts him and, as he says, “I love her the way you love at twelve.” There are yawning holes in Frédéric’s childhood recollections, apparently caused by the traumatising death of his father. His mother impatiently, and a touch desperately, denies the event occurred. Frédéric is unconvinced, and gets a lead from another guest about a photographer who took the shot. This is the black-haired lady, who, when he visits her salon, is busy taking nude photos of a model (a quick-forward remote is advisable here, unless of course you dig it). The photographer tells Frédéric she was paid to keep the location of the ruin secret, but finds him sufficiently attractive (the advantages of coauthoring the script) that she promises to look up the location and meet him later, when she’ll be on a midnight photo shoot at the Paris Aquarium.

To waste time until the rendezvous, Frédéric goes to a movie theatre (showing what looks awfully like one of Rollin’s earlier films) and spies a familiar figure standing in the rear exit. Borrowing an usher’s flashlight, he sees it’s the girl of his memory before she disappears. He pursues her outside and sees her by the gates of Montmartre Cemetery. Bewildered but determined, Frédéric climbs the gate and follows her intermittent appearances until they lead him into the familiar crypt. Frédéric breaks open the coffins, and finds bats grotesquely entangled in shrouds. Frédéric runs off, and the bats turn into young vampire women--draped in see-through shrouds, natch--who look like bloodsucking, heroin-chic fashion models. Most striking are a pair of twins (Catherine and Marie-Pierre Castel), who begin stalking the rain-gleaming Parisian streets. Frédéric, unaware of this, encounters a tragic-looking woman wearing too much make-up,who claims to be the girl from the castle. But she’s only a paid decoy who lures him into a room and locks him up. He is freed by the twins, who have torn the woman’s throat out.

Frédéric arrives at the Aquarium, where he passes a suspicious man (who resembles a homicidal Ron Burgundy) and finds the photographer, murdered, in one of the displays. Frédéric pursues the assassin onto a metro train, where his quarry pulls a gun on him. Frédéric escapes from the train, jumps off an overpass, and is pursued. He is saved again by the vampires, who turn on a fountain, obscuring Frédéric from the assassin’s aim. Frédéric, distraught, goes to his mother for help, but she has him hauled away by the men in white coats. Frédéric is brought straitjacketed before a psychiatrist, who cheerfully proposes using shock treatment on him, but finds--in the film’s funniest pay-off--his two nurses are actually the vampire twins, and they kill the good doctor. Frédéric is free, but without hope of solving the mystery until the girl appears beside a blind postcard seller, pointing to one of the cards; it shows the chateau and its location.

Frédéric reaches the chateau, to find the vampire girls have congregated there. He penetrates the ruin and finds the belongings of the teenaged girl, and a sealed coffin, inside of which she lies with a pin in her heart. His mother appears and explains that the girl is his older sister, Jennifer. Made a vampire at the age of 16, she killed Frédéric’s father and created the other vampires, who terrorized the countryside. The mother staked Jennifer, but could not bring herself to behead her or the other girls, so they were all imprisoned. Her tolerance is at an end. Outside, her paid killers hunt down and stake the vampire girls, and she requests that Frédéric perform the coup-de-grace of beheading his sister to end the evil. As the bodies of the vampires are incinerated in a pit, Frédéric appears with a severed head--but it is actually from one of the girl’s dolls--that he throws in the fire.
When his mother and the men have left, Frédéric removes the pin from Jennifer’s heart. She awakens and the pair celebrate their joyful reunion. She explains that though she was paralysed, she had learned to project her thoughts, which is how she could appear to him. After having sex on the beach, she turns him into a vampire, and they seal themselves in a coffin to drift on the sea to an island where they will live off shipwrecked sailors.

It’s a splendidly antisocial twist on the traditional imperative of the vampire story, particularly of stories like Le Fanu’s Carmilla, where the lesbian title character must be destroyed so the patriarchy remains unthreatened (and yet, Rollin comes closer than anyone else to capturing the nocturne tone of Le Fanu’s writing). In a less imaginative film, the image of threatening female sexuality would be obliterated, and the man’s need to transgress, to break beyond the boundaries of society and memory dully punished or be retracted. Or worse yet, in the modern mould, the triumph of evil would be a facile punchline. Instead it’s an oddly idealistic finale, reminiscent of Pasolini’s principles. Frédéric blindly believes, from the beginning, that Jennifer’s lost, wounded, caring beauty is worth defying death, madness, and all social values, and remains true to this instinct to the end.

Even as Jennifer’s vampire acolytes are murderous, the mother’s methods of keeping the secret safe, the disease trapped, are just as bad. The brutality of the standard vampire-killing--phallic penetration by staking--is highlighted by the forlorn sight of the twins, a stake having gone right through one into the other, sinking to death clutching each other like children. The news that Jennifer killed his father only seems to confirm that her chief crime was not vampirism, but up-ending the bourgeois family structure. The patriarchy was destroyed early, and their mother’s compensatory, viciously repressive matriarchy is finally outwitted. There is a sorrow to the finale as well as a liberation. Though Frédéric and Jennifer have found each other, death is death, no matter how animated.

Thematically interesting as Lèvres de Sang is, it exists entirely to justify Rollin’s creation of gorgeously weird images, and evocation of a rare, haunted mood. Few other films in the genre that approach its sonorus, alien poetry, oddities like Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931) and John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971); only Fellini’s (1963) equals it for evoking how childhood recollections bleed into the present. Dotted through the film are memorable touches, essayed in what is, considering the film’s miniscule budget, obscenely pretty, silk-textured cinematography by Jean-François Robin:

At the party, where a bunch of teenagers, flagrantly dressed down, dart between the evening-dressed guests and pinch food from the buffet. The tableaux vivant shots of the vampire girls around the chateau, semiclothed by wind-wafting silks. The hilarious-horrible flashback out of a BDSM comic where the vampire girls drag a nude, chained victim to their lair. The starkly nasty sight of the dead photographer, lying upside-down, bare-breasted and bloodless on water-washed rocks. The scenes where Frédéric pursues and is pursued by the assassin, which evoke Hitchcock, Lang, and Feuillade. Frédéric kissing the dollhead’s lips in the deathly chill of dawn, and his mother’s veiled face stony in triumph. And the finale, a symphony of images (Jennifer invokes an orchestra in the sounds of nature, “conducted by a madman!”), with Frédéric and Jennifer’s entwined, naked forms; Jennifer standing like the human equivalent of the Wicker Man, arms raised in a rite of primal nature worship; the chilling hint as Frédéric lowers himself into the coffin and stops momentarily to study her fine but deathly still face. Their coffin, buffeted by the waves, brushing against the black ribs of a groin, finally floating out into the ship-ridden sea.

Lèvres de Sang was a flop, satisfying neither horror buffs out for blood nor porn patrons, and it’s easy to see why. It’s actually an assertion of primal innocence and places both gore and sex at the disposal of its playful narrative. Rollin survived--just--and limped along under various pseudonyms before nearly recapturing some of his old intensity with Fascination (1979) and La Nuit des Traqueés (1980), both featuring Brigitte Lahaie who, later, added memorable erotic shape to Henry & June (1990). l

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Divorce, Italian Style (Divorzio all'italiana, 1961)
Director: Pietro Germi

In the 1960s, the flower of Italian cinema finally came into full bloom on the international scene. Of course, Italian movie makers had been producing stellar work since at least the 1940s. But it was in 1960 that Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita created a worldwide sensation. Suddenly, Italian cinema was all the rage, with Fellini leading the charge and Marcello Mastrioanni, the star of La Dolce Vita, the very symbol of disaffection that would come to characterize that tumultuous decade.

There were fainter lights in the Italian sky whose work also received recognition at the time but who have faded with the years. One of them was Pietro Germi. A skilled screenwriter and veteran director, Germi originally conceived of Divorce, Italian Style as a tragedy, but the story's possibilities pushed him and screenwriter Ennio De Concini to the extreme edges of comedy. So admired was the screenplay when it made the rounds that Mastrioanni, then a big star, agreed to do a screen test to win the part of murder-minded Baron Ferdinando "Fefe" Cefalú from Germi's original choice, Anthony Quinn. The film that resulted is one of the funniest and biting I have ever seen, with a visual humor Billy Wilder would have envied.

Agrigento, Sicily is the setting for this burlesque--an important point because divorce was illegal there at this time. Fefe has been married for more than a decade to Rosalia (Daniela Rocco), a foolish middlebrow who has gotten on his very last nerve. Fefe and Rosalia live with Fefe's parents in a wing of the Cefalú manor house--all that is left of the noble family's fortune. In the opposite wing lives Fefe's uncle, whose lovely 16-year-old daughter Angela (Stefania Sandrelli) has captured Fefe's heart.

At first, it's hard to see what Fefe dislikes so much about Rosalia. She's affectionate, often wants to make love, and seems to have a bit of an intellect, though more of the pop-psych variety. Yet, once we see her anger at Fefe, it all becomes clear. A shrieking goes off in Fefe's head, and we are treated to his fantasies of murder. These visual flights of fancy go beyond anything that could be described, so closely woven are they with the comic rhythm of the film. But each is perfectly timed, short and sweet, and accompanied by sublime looks on Mastrioanni's face as he imagines the deed.

One day, Fefe approaches Angela in a moonlit garden, and she admits she has nursed a passion for him, too. (No matter that they are first cousins; this is the nobility!) From that moment on, he is determined to kill his wife. But he must find a way to do it that will ensure he won't spend the rest of his life in prison. Recently, a woman received 7 years for murdering her husband, whom she had caught in the arms of another woman. Fefe reasons that if he can maneuver his wife into having an affair and degrade his honor sufficiently to require an honor killing to restore the family name, he could get a light sentence.

Fefe's search for a suitable paramour for his wife is hilarious. He buys Rosalia a new dress and parades her through town during the customary evening strolls once popular in Italy. He hopes the usual tableau of searching male eyes will find her irresistible, as he did when he was young and foolish. While many admire her form, this is not a very efficient way to find her a lover. He thinks an artist would entice her, and singles out a singer in the church choir. During church, he remarks helpfully to Rosalia that the man has quite a lovely voice. She agrees with a giggle and then says, "Poor man." She whispers into his ear, and the camera pans up to the man singing in the choir box. After church, a voiceover by Fefe confirms that this man was obviously not a suitable choice. This is the deadpan way we learn of the man's "infirmity" as a castrato.

One day, a painter comes to town to do some work in the church. It turns out that he and Rosalia were lovers before the war. Fefe instantly commissions him to restore some frescoes in the Cefalú home, monitoring the two former lovers with a tape recorder to see how their renewed romance may be progressing. Eventually, Rosalia does run off with her lover, and the town watches as Fefe becomes more and more degraded. When he takes his evening stroll now, he is subjected to catcalls and urgings to avenge his honor and that of his family. His sister's long-time fiance, who, in a running joke, Fefe constantly catches in compromising situations with his sister, breaks the engagement because of Fefe's humiliation. Finally, mafia Don Calogero (Ugo Torrente) agrees to help find out where Rosalia is hiding so that Fefe can do the "right" thing--just what Fefe had been waiting for.

This film is a visual feast in which the actors inhabit their caricatures with relish. For example, Sandrelli knows exactly the type of vixen called for, and she puts on the best madonna/whore I've seen in quite a while. When Fefe's lust is still in its undeclared state, he peers through a high window in the bathroom to watch Angela lounge on her bed across the courtyard, shutters thrown open and cover off in all her calculated innocence.

Rocco has the wide face and too wide smile of the stereotypical shallow wife. Everything about her is both fetching and grating. She plays Rosalia as a woman who is unaware of anything but her own narrow concerns. When she runs off with her lover, she doesn't even have the sense to worry about their safety. She is the perfect buffoon.

Of course, the ultimate buffoon is Fefe himself. Mastrioanni plays him as a degenerated aristocrat, with shellacked hair, a foppish cigarette holder, and a peculiar mouth tic that eventually becomes very grating. He's certainly ingenious about how to get what he wants, but he is as unreflexive and doltish as any of the other characters. The rules of Sicilian life are very rigid, leaving little space for individuality. Germi capitalized on this rigidity to lampoon both the code of honor and the roles into which bourgeois Italians eagerly throw themselves.

Germi references Mastrioanni's triumph in La Dolce Vita by showing the fictional opening of the Fellini film in Agrigento. With its expert direction, dead-on casting, and inventive cinematography Divorce, Italian Style stands alongside this Fellini milestone as one of the gems of Italian cinema. l