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Posts Tagged ‘Sergio Leone’

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966)) BLU-RAY REVIEW

Sunday, August 13th, 2017

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Stars – Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach * Director- Sergio Leone
* Released by Kino Studio Classics*Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

The Good – The restored mono audio sounds fantastic! That American theatrical cut is back the way we remember it!* The Not So Bad – The look of the film is far less yellow than it used to be. To be fair it looks pretty great although that might not be the kind of great you were expecting. The Ugly – The extras ported over from the DVD set are all out of whack. They have a staccato movement and the quality is rendered very poorly.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is many people’s idea of the best western ever made, at least the best Spaghetti Western. It is an immensely satisfying experience to take in. Director Sergio Leone serves this up with a very apparent love of American Westerns. He delivers on the action. He gives us such cool characters with plenty of memorable lines. There are so many little bits to be cherished. When Eli Wallach goes into a gun shop he has the proprietor lays out all of the best six guns. He takes several apart. He looks through the barrels. He rolls the cylinders back and forth between his hands as he listens to them. He then builds his own pistol from the best parts. The last time we saw an actor do this kind of intense scene stealing gun fetish stuff was when Steve McQueen rode out to the graveyard with Yul Brynner at the beginning of The Magnificent Seven (1960). McQueen shook a shotgun shell to his ear to see if they were ok. If you love westerns you eat this stuff up! Lee Van Cleef has that pipe and the steely eyes. Leone gives his actors plenty of extreme close ups. Clint Eastwood has that classic catch phrase. Even though it is dubbed in afterwards we can still appreciate the long pause he takes before he simply says, “…yeah”. Word was he used to cross most of his lines out of the script. All three leads do their own voices and it makes a real difference to hear them. Even though Leone creates an epic tale set against the civil war on an operatic scale he still stays true to the things that make westerns work. Along the way though there is an artfulness and a majesty that elevates this picture to one of the greats. When you add in Ennio Morricone’s amazing and memorable score this is the full house of all westerns that just can’t be beat.

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I want to get this story in because it was where I fell in love with this film. Back in the late sixties there was a theatre on Broadway that had an incredible multiple bill. They advertised it in the papers as Spend The Day With Clint Eastwood. Four films were shown: Hang ’Em High (1968), Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966). This was likely done to help extend the revenue for Hang ‘Em High. As kids we were used to seeing the James Bond double bills like From Russia With Love and Dr. No. but this was four pictures. Clint’s new one and the Dollar trilogy. This was a Sunday in the dead of Winter. Brutally cold. It had to have started early, well before 10:00 AM. My buddy and I had these ridiculously big winter coats on. We stopped off at a Blimpie’s and got subs, a bottle of soda and chips. The sandwiches went down the inside of the sleeve. You couldn’t move your arm but the sub was hidden. Sodas went in the left pockets and chips in the right. Don’t push me on my right side, man, I got chips in there. We got our tickets without being spotted as smugglers. Hang ‘Em High was ok but seeing the three others in a row like that was magical. By the end we had that move down. Throw your poncho over you shoulder, adjust the stogie cigarette in your mouth, give that stare and wait,…. Then say, “…Yeah” So cool. The length of that four picture show was long but we really had gone on an adventure of epic proportions with Tucco, Angel Eyes and Blondie. So much of that imagery and the sweeping soundtrack were imbedded inside our growing cinema souls. The extreme close ups of the eyes and those long vistas of open space made an impression. I’ll never forget though the rush that came with seeing Tucco running madly through the graveyard at the end. The background of gravestones went by him so fast they became a blur. The edits came faster and faster. The music swelled. The trumpet cut right through you. Spending a day with Clint Eastwood and seeing The Good, The Bad and The Ugly that day became a milestone. Kids don’t normally devote that kind of time to movies but we did. And that day they became so much more than movies.

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Video – 2.35:1
Without a doubt Kino has dialed back the offending boost that the yellows got in the last 4K transfer. Others colors have been reigned in, too. On that front things are fine. In fact the film looks great. The only quibble would be it might not be everyone’s idea of what great is. The film is much more naturalistic looking. It is almost modern in the way it has been muted and toned down. Detail is very strong. Black levels behave fine. Grain though still plenty apparent is not out of hand at all. Previous versions before the last 4K Blu-ray had a brighter level throughout. That brighter look fits my recollections of seeing the film on screen better. The look in the MGM 2009 Blu-Ray feels close in those terms. There are other aspects of that transfer that look better here. I wish I could lay out these different transfers on a table just like Eli Wallach did with the pistols and put together my favorite parts.
* This is the first offering in Blu-Ray of the US theatrical cut from a 4K transfer. There are few minor discrepancies in the theatrical cut. They did not affect my enjoyment of it at all. Kino has done the best they could with this and it works fine.

Audio – Newly Restored 2.0 Mono Audio, Italian Dolby 2.0 Mono, English 5.1 DTS with subtitles offered in English

So much has been said about how this film looks that I feel like I want to leap up on a desk and shout , “Just listen to that mono mix!” Sure the look of the film is very important but so much of my experience with it came from the soundtrack. The mono track is robust and with a good rig delivers in spades. Morricone’s score ebbs and swells throughout. The combination of surf guitar, solo whistling, choral voices, orchestration and that lone trumpet is nothing short of magnificent. Then you add in the dubbed voices of the lead actors in a way that we have all come to recognize so well. But the real cherry on top is those echoey pistol and gun shots. This is one of the things that makes this film so iconic. The cannon blasts also get this treatment. Listening to this film is the movie equivalent of Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound in rock n’ roll. He used to call them his symphonies for the kids. Ennio Morricone’s score and the elements that make up the sound effects combine to give us one for the ages. I love this new mono track!

Extras – New Audio Commentary by Film Historian Tim Lucas, New Trailers From Hell” with Ernest Dickerson, Alternate Scene: The Optical Flip, Deleted Scene 1: Skeletons in the Desert, Deleted Scene 2: Extended Torture Scene, GBU on the: animated behind-the-scenes image gallery, Promoting GBU: Posters & Lobby Cards animated image gallery, Sergio Leone Westerns: Original Theatrical Trailers

The following extras were ported over from the DVD box set. They were also included in the MGM Blu-Ray box and single editions :Audio Commentary By Acclaimed Film Historian Richard Schickel, Audio Commentary By Noted Cultural Historian Christopher Frayling

These  other extras were done at the wrong speed and don’t work well at all : Leone’s West: Making Of Documentary , The Leone Style: On Sergio Leone Featurette , The Man Who Lost The Civil War: Civil War Documentary , Reconstruction The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, II Maestro: Ennio Morricone and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly Featurette, Deleted Scenes.

The new commentary from Tim Lucas is loaded with info. I have not gotten through it yet but always enjoy his contributions. The Trailers From Hell bit is short and fun. The previous film extras included some excellent interviews with Christopher Frayling but were done at the wrong speed so you can’t really enjoy them.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray – Excellent for the Mono sound and the Theatrical version.
Very Good for the overall look. Excellent for the new extras
and Poor for the older ones that were ported over

Movie – Classic

The Big Gundown: Blu Ray/DVD/CD Combopack Review

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

The Big Gundown (1966)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Sergio Sollima

Starring Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes, Gerard Herter, Nieves Navarro, Fernando Sancho, Angel Del Pozo

Jonathon Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) is hired by the unscrupulous Brokston (Walter Barnes) to hunt down and kill the Mexican outlaw Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), who is accused of raping and murdering a little girl…

Sergio Leone did not create the Italian western – or Spaghetti Western as it is commonly known, much to the annoyance of many of  the genre’s key figures – but he certainly perfected and popularized it.  After setting box office records with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), other Italian directors sought to cash in on the formula.  Some of these filmmakers were clueless hacks who only managed to cheapen the genre, while others would give Leone a run for his money.  Sergio Sollima falls into the latter camp.  His first western, The Big Gundown, is regularly cited as one of the genre’s very best entries – though for my money, his politically charged Faccia a Faccia (1967) would emerge as his true masterpiece.  In any event, the film helped to cement Lee Van Cleef as one of the genre’s true icons (he had already done For a Few Dollars More for Leone, thus rescuing a career that was threatening to draw to a close, as Van Cleef’s exotic looks didn’t garner him much employment in Hollywood) and introduced a new anti-hero in the form of Cuban-born Tomas Milian.

The Big Gundown was written by the gifted Sergio Donati, who had already worked on the screenplay for Leone’s For A Few Dollars More without credit.  Working from a story by Fernando Salinas, he sought to temper Sollima’s penchant for leftist grandstanding by placing more emphasis on action and visual storytelling as opposed to ideological grandstanding and long-winded speeches.  Their sometimes uneasy collaboration yielded a film of subtle power and beauty.  Sollima’s basic points about the corrupt upper class and political shenanigans come through loud and clear, but the film does not sacrifice entertainment value in the process.  The character of Cuchillo is a fascinating addition to the rogues gallery of Italian western archetypes, worthy of inclusion alongside Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name or Franco Nero’s Django.  He’s a Mexican and a peasant – and on that level he’s an ideal scapegoat for Braxton’s political maneuvering.  The fact that he is innocent of what he is accused of matters little to Brokston, but Sollima and Donati sweeten the deal by making him into an unsavory character who is fully capable of committing despicable acts. He’s a complex character, by turns sympathetic and off-putting, and he stands in relief against the stoic Corbett.  Corbett is closer in tone to the cynical anti-hero embodied by Eastwood, but Van Cleef gives subtle clues as to his basically decent nature which makes him a more readily identifiable heroic figure in the long run.

Van Cleef and Milian both attack their roles with the enthusiasm of actors looking to make an impression on the audience.  Van Cleef had struggled for years in Hollywood, typically playing shifty henchmen to the main bad guys in westerns, the kind of thankless parts that afforded him a few juicy moments and a death scene early in the picture.  Legend has it that Leone remembered him from High Noon and was so impressed with his walk that he told his assistant to sign him on the spot, sooner than risk being put off by a bad reading.  Van Cleef was ready to throw in the towel when this fortuitous bit of casting occurred, and he would spend the next decade top lining Italian westerns and action films of varying quality.  The Big Gundown is certainly one of his best showcases, allowing him to display intelligence, sly humor and an ability to throw a mean – and convincing – punch when called upon to do so.  Milian had come from a background of doing “intellectual” films ( he had played the lead in Luchino Visconti’s segment of Boccaccio 70) and his casting was seen as a risky move.  Audiences warmed to his wily rascal routine and he would become a major star in westerns, gialli and police thrillers for the next decade.  His character of Cuchillo would be so popular, in fact, that Sollima would bring him back for a decidedly inferior sequel, Run Man Run (1968).  The supporting cast is dominated by American actor Walter Barnes, who gives a scene stealing performance as the corrupt Brokston.  Gerard Herter (Caltiki the Immortal Monster) is a blast as the wonderfully Teutonic marksman, Baron von Schulenberg, while the gorgeous Nieves Navarro (later to be billed as Susan Scott in many a sexy giallo) has a field day as the nymphomaniac widow with a taste for S&M.  Genre veterans like Frank Brana, Fernando Sancho and Luis Barboo also show up in smaller roles.

Sollima directs with a tremendous flair.  The widescreen compositions look wonderful throughout, the actions scenes are very well staged and the story never drags.  He clearly has more on his mind than just blowing up the scenery, but he manages to keep his propensity for “message filmmaking” in check, ensuring that viewers not sympathetic to his basic point of view should still have fun with the film.  Sollima would go on to direct other fine films in other genres – including the Charles Bronson thriller Violent City and the wonderful Revolver with Oliver Reed – but The Big Gundown remains one of his most enduring and enjoyable pictures.  The impact is heightened by a tremendous score by Ennio Morricone.  The opening song, performed by Christy (who also sang the wonderful “Deep Deep Down” in Mario Bava’s Diabolik), is bound to be a love it or hate it proposition; personally, I love it.

Video:

The Big Gundown has had a checkered past on home video, emerging in various releases of varying lengths, quality, even legality.  This new release from Grindhouse Releasing is bound to become the gold standard – indeed, it is arguably the finest release of a Spaghetti Western on home video to date; you can take that to the bank.  The blu ray/DVD combopack includes two edits of the film.  The US release has been restored to include three scenes previously cut by Columbia Pictures – the 95 minute version is in English and is arguably the most audience-friendly edition of the film.  The full length 110 minute director’s cut is included on disc two, and it is in Italian only, with English subtitles.  The longer edit is certainly well worth watching, but the 95 minute version arguably gets the basic point across in a tighter, more focused manner.  Both edits are in remarkably good condition.  The 2.40/16×9/1080p transfers look superb, with only a bit of dupey looking footage in evidence during the scene where Van Cleef tries to get the jump on Milian as the latter is getting a shave.  The shots in question look rough in both edits, so that may well be an issue with the original lab work.  The film looks sharp, colorful and rich throughout.  Grain is evident, as it should be, and the textures are marvelously detailed.  This is simply a fantastic looking presentation all around.

Audio:

Audio options include the original Italian and English dubs, both in mono.  The longer cut is in Italian only, while the US version is in English.  Van Cleef and Barnes provide their own voices for the English track.  Both tracks are in very good shape, with clear dialogue and distortion free music.  An isolated music and effects track is included on the US cut, while the Italian has a isolated stereo music track.

Extras:

This is one stacked special edition.  Extras commence on the US edit, with a running commentary track by western film authorities C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke.  They provide a very good overview of the Italian western and of The Big Gundown’s place in the scheme of things.  It’s an interesting talk, with very little dead air and precious little repetition.  Disc one also includes interviews with Sollima, Milian and Donati.  There are two interviews with Sollima and two with Donati, but Milian’s is arguably the most interesting, with the opinionated actor holding forth on his views on acting and his memories of Sollima, Lucio Fulci and others.  Assorted trailers and stills galleries are also included, and there are a couple of worthwhile Easter Eggs hidden as well.  Disc two includes an optional text-only music commentary track, which goes into some of Morricone’s methods as well as some of the differences in editing between the US and Italian versions.  It’s an interesting extra, worth looking at.  Trailers for other Grindhouse Releasing titles are also included.  A DVD edition of the US edition is included, which contains some – but not all – of the bonus materials.  The fourth disc is the complete soundtrack by Morricone on CD.  Liner notes by Joyner and Parke round out a very definitive package.  One can only hope that Grindhouse Releasing picks up more of these wonderful films…

Film: ***** out of *****

Video: ***** out of *****

Audio: **** out of *****

Extras: ***** out of *****

A Bay of Blood: Blu Ray Review

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

A Bay of Blood

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Mario Bava

Starring Claudine Auger, Luigi Pistilli, Claudio Volonte, Leopoldo Trieste, Laura Betti, Chris Avram, Anna M. Rosati, Brigitte Skay, Isa Miranda

The murder of a reclusive countess (Isa Miranda) sets off a literal chain reaction of violent death, as her greedy heirs fight and claw to take possession of her desirable bayside estate…

1971 was a banner year for controversial subject matter in the cinema.  Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick, expatriate American filmmakers working in the UK, unleashed Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange, respectively.  In the US, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry was targeted by critics as “fascist,” while William Friedkin’s kinetic The French Connection would work in a similar style and subject matter, garnering Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in the process.  Britain’s favorite “bad boy” filmmaker Ken Russell would take the brunt of the criticism, however, for his powerful plea for the separation of church and state, The Devils.  Meanwhile, in Italy, Mario Bava responded to the trend towards more colorfully explicit thrillers, as popularized by his youthful “disciple” Dario Argento, by making Reazione a catena (Chain Reaction).  The film was far and away Bava’s goriest film to date, and it would be released under a myriad of titles, including Ecologia del delitto (Ecology of a Crime), Twitch of the Death Nerve, Carnage, Last House Part 2, and A Bay of Blood, among others.  No matter what title you see the film under, it would prove to be a film of surprising longevity and influence, even if its impact was not always properly cited.

The film is a continuation of the themes established in Bava’s earlier, seminal gialli, such as Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970).  A group of morally reprehensible characters stab each other in the back (literally and figuratively) in order to get their hands on a piece of property – that’s pretty much the long and the short of it.  Bava dispenses with the usual whodunit clichés early on, by panning up from one corpse to the black gloved hands of their assailant – this is where most other directors would have stopped, but Bava then proceeds to pan up further, thus revealing the face of the killer for all to see; this is surprising enough, but the director manages to work in yet another whammy by his THIS killer gorily dispatched by another assailant.  In short, this isn’t so much a whodunit as it is a “how are they gonna get it.”  Taking his cue from the more elaborate murder set pieces of younger directors like Argento and Lucio Fulci, Bava outdoes the competition by delivering a film which serves up one gory murder scene after the next.  The director’s elegant sense of composition and camerawork gives the film a slick, artful sheen, and his macabre sense of humor, with heavy emphasis on irony, transforms the film into yet another dark comedy about greed, Bava style.

The excellent cast is headed by Claudine Auger and Luigi Pistilli.  Auger, best known for her role as Domino in the James Bond film Thunderball (1965), would go on to play a key role in another seminal giallo of the period, Paolo Cavara’s Black Belly of the Tarantula (1972).  Pistilli was already a fixture in the genre, but reached his widest international audience in such Spaghetti Westerns as Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) and Giulio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse (1968).  They are excellent as the ill matched couple, with Auger providing one of Bava’s most memorably venomous femme fatale types.  Their relationship offers something of a contemporary spin on Shakespeare’s Macbeth (itself made as yet another controversial 1971 item, by Roman Polanski), with Auger’s pushy, power-mad wife acting as a Lady Macbeth to Pistilli’s ambivalent and confused Macbeth.  Leopoldo Trieste (Fellini’s I Vitelloni and Coppola’s Godfather Part 2) and Laura Betti (earlier in Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon) nearly steal the show, however, as the even more ill-matched medium and her henpecked, entomologist husband.  Bava was himself trapped in an unhappy marriage, and as such, unhappy couplings such as this could be read as an autobiographical flourish on his part.  Claudio Volonte, the brother of the famed Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte, is also impressive as the most aggressively sadistic character of the lot.

Bava’s artful lighting and fluid camerawork is sometimes compromised by an overreliance on the zoom lens, and the narrative slows down during a digression involving some horny teens who get mixed up in the action – but it has to be said, it’s this element which most closely links the film with the slasher films which would later take some influence from it.  Indeed, some critics have argued that Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) is a literal carbon copy of this picture.  Cunningham has always denied seeing it, but given that it was later acquired by his company, Hallmark Releasing, and issued under the fraudulent title of Last House Part 2 – despite having been made a full year before Cunningham and Wes Craven’s watershed exploitation item, The Last House on the Left – this denial seems suspect at best.  That being said, it would be unfair and more than a little unrealistic to suggest that Friday the 13th was a wholesale rip off of Bava’s dark comedy.  Yes, there are elements in common – the setting, the horny teens, even the death of copulating lovers skewered together by a spear (this would be borrowed for Friday the 13th Part 2) – but the two films are also very dissimilar.  For one thing, Cunningham’s movie really IS a whodunit – a fact which fans who grew up on a slew of Jason Voorhees sequels tend to forget.  For another, Cunningham’s film is far more serious in tone – not to mention, also being far more judgmental of its characters.  Friday the 13th would become a favorite target of critics who despised the slasher genre’s convention of linking premarital sex with violent death – but this was never really a dimension which applied to Bava’s work.  Indeed, for all the violence and amoral characters which populate his work, Bava is note worthy for being very non-judgmental towards his characters – they may deserve what they have coming to them, but like an anthropologist studying a strange culture, Bava’s point of view is detached and steers clear of encouraging the viewer to look with contempt upon them; they simply behave as they’ve been programmed, as it were.

Despite some missteps here and there, A Bay of Blood remains one of Bava’s most enjoyable works.  The film’s impact is greatly aided by a terrific soundtrack by Stelvio Cipriani - the first of several that he would compose for the director.  Unfortunately, the film failed to find much attention or acclaim upon release, thus ensuring that he remained a less viable box office force than Argento.  He would go from this most modern of his works to a Gothic throwback (Baron Blood) before suffering the double whammy of seeing his most personal (Lisa and the Devil, 1972) and experimental (Rabid Dogs, 1974) of his works being denied distribution for one reason or another.  After that, his output began to slow down… and he would die in 1980, long before his work would become embraced and revered not only for its own particular qualities but for its impact on the work of so many other filmmakers.

Video:

A Bay of Blood has had a complex history on digital home video.  The original Image DVD release suffered from a horribly warped and distorted soundtrack.  An Italian DVD release offered an improved soundtrack but a much inferior video transfer.  Anchor Bay got things closer to perfection when they issued the film to DVD as part of the second Mario Bava box set collection – but the transfer was a little muddy, and the audio was still a little tinny.  In 2010, the film became the first of Bava’s films to hit blu ray when Arrow released their Region A-B-C edition.  Though kitted out with some nice bonus materials, it offered a very sharp – but rather pale looking transfer.  Kino have been regularly trailing Arrow when it comes to issuing the best editions of Bava’s work on blu ray, but here they had the advantage of allowing Arrow to go first – and as such, they managed to learn from the UK company’s error by issuing a far more handsome transfer.  The 1.78/16×9/1080p transfer is certainly the best of Kino’s Bava releases to date – and it can join Black Sabbath from Arrow as arguably the best looking Bava blu ray transfer to date.  The image is sharp and detailed throughout.  Black levels are deep and stable, and the colors are appropriately vivid – this is not one of Bava’s ultra baroque films, so don’t expect the kind of color gels that one would associate from Black Sabbath or The Whip and the Body, for example.  Even so, the reds are far more vivid here than they were on the Arrow edition – and red is a very important film in this extremely bloody film’s color scheme.  The film is presented essentially uncut – I emphasize essentially, as the film fades to the final “The End” card sooner than usual – and the delirious end title cue by Cipriani fades out and is not allowed to play out as it has in other editions.  Beyond that, the blood, gore and nudity is all fully intact.

Audio:

Happily, this is the best this film has ever sounded – the mono English dub is very good, with Cipriani’s music coming off without distortion for once.  This was a rare example of Bava shooting dialogue in two different versions – once in English and once in Italian, so it would not be authentic to offer an Italian track as an option in this context.

Extras:

Kino have done the next best thing, however, which is to present the entire Italian language version of the film – bearing the onscreen title Reazione a Catena (Ecologia del delitto) – as an extra.  The two edits are basically identical, but the Italian version preserves the final shot as intended, and goes to an end credit crawl which was never included in the English prints – this allows Cipriani’s cue to play out as intended, however.  Dialogue scenes are every so subtly different, and the English subtitles point out some differences in the dialogue.  The Italian version is presented in SD and looks much rougher than the English version, but it’s nice to finally have it presented on American video.  In addition to the Italian edit, there are also some trailers, and a commentary by Tim Lucas which dates from the Anchor Bay release.  Lucas offers a wealth of information – and in fairnesss, it has to be noted that he gets a couple of things wrong, as well, such as attributing the score for Bava’s comic western Roy Colt & Winchester Jack (1969) to Cipirani, or asserting that this was the first film Bava directed since The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) which credited him as director of photography – he was also credited as such on Hatchet for the Honeymoon – but these are minor quibbles in an otherwise immaculately researched track.

Film: ****1/2 out of *****

Video: **** out of *****

Audio: ***1/2 out of *****

Extras: ***** out of *****

The Italian Crime Collection, Volume 2 (Blu Ray)

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

The Italian Crime Collection, Volume 2

by Troy Howarth

Despite a successful run of films covering a variety of genres in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, writer/director Fernando Di Leo sunk into comparative obscurity for a number of years.  Happily, the advent of home video has introduced him to a new generation of fans – and with much of his work finally emerging as it was originally intended to be seen, he is now firmly entrenched in the ranks of the major Italian “cult” filmmakers.  Di Leo, who first rose to prominence writing the screenplays for a number of seminal pictures (including Sergio Leone’s A Fisftful of Dollars, 1964), was fond of working in his own leftist politics and ideology into rough and ready genre fare, making him akin to the likes of George A. Romero.  Ultimately, like Romero, his work is all the more pleasurable for having a bit of substance beneath the conventional mayhem – and the messages are all the more potent because they’re not hammered home in a pretentious or overly earnest manner.

Naked Violence (1969)

Starring Pier Paolo Capponi, Susan Scott, Michel Bardinet

A group of youths come under suspicion for the brutal rape and murder of a young, female teacher; an intrepid police inspector (Pier Paolo Capponi) must come to grips with the truth…

 

Naked Violence (aka I ragazzi del massarcro) followed on the heels of Di Leo’s earliest directorial outings, including the war melodrama Code Name, Red Roses (1968) and the erotic melodrama Burn, Boy, Burn (1969), and it was the first film to point to the direction his career would ultimately take.  Based on a novel by the Italian-Russian author Giorgio Scerbanenco, it offers up a heady stew of social commentary and tough edged whodunit.  The end result, like the director’s subsequent Scerbanenco adaptations (including Calibre 9 and The Italian Connection), is therefore more akin to the tradition of film noir than to the burgeoning trend in Italian popular cinema known as poliziotteschi.  The latter movement, typified by the slam bang actioneers of Umberto Lenzi (Violent Naples) and Enzo G. Castellari (The Big Racket), are altogether more jovial affairs, rife with shoot ups, half naked bimbos, and impossibly macho renegade cops packing plenty of heat.  The Di Leo films are a different breed altogether, being rather more contained, slightly more realistic, and a good deal more melancholy in tone.  Naked Violence is therefore a watershed event in its director’s filmography, even if it ultimately doesn’t pack quite the same punch as his later, more focused work.  The screenplay is more concerned with subterfuge than usual, and this may account for the slightly more heavy handed approach.  Red herrings abound, and Di Leo has an unfortunate habit of punctuating key “moments” with dramatic musical stings; the end result veers towards self parody after a while.  On the plus side, the film offers the underrated Pier Paolo Capponi one of his few leading roles – and despite a somewhat out of control combover hairdo, he acquits himself very well.  Capponi specialized in playing policemen at this stage in the game, but he would later flourish playing sleazy villains in the likes of Di Leo’s The Boss, for example.  Susan Scott (aka Nieves Navarro) is on hand to play a concerned social worker arguing on behalf of the delinquents, but she doesn’t have much of a chance to register.  The film is a bit wordier and flabbier than Di Leo’s best work, but it still offers some entertainment value – and fans will be interested to see where he began to evolve into the filmmaker he would eventually become.

Shoot First, Die Later (1975)

Starring Luc Merenda, Richard Conte, Salvo Randone, Raymond Pellegrin, Vittorio Caprioli

A hotshot cop (Luc Merenda) is secretly on the take, but when the local mob boss decides to expand his horizons from contraband to narcotics, he is forced to make a decision that may affect his life and the lives of those he loves…

Having already carved out a niche for himself as a prime purveyor of gritty police thrillers, Di Leo took a breather and helmed an elegant, Lolita-inspired melodrama titled The Seduction (1973).  Censorship difficulties compelled the director to return to his “home turf” with Shoot First, Die Later (aka Il poliziotto e Marcio).  Sadly, the theme of a crooked cop would also prove a bit too controversial, and the film has since disappeared from popular view.  Now that it is more readily available again, it is possible to appreciate this as something of a precursor to the likes of the Hong Kong Infernal Affairs trilogy, which also inspired Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed (2006).  Luc Merenda gives one of his strongest performances as the morally compromised “hero.”  Di Leo is less interested in painting the character in broad strokes than in focusing on the moral conundrums and contradictions inherent in the character, and Merenda responds with a finely detailed performance.  The action moves at a tremendous pace, while Remy Julienne is on hand to provide one of his patented, thrilling car chase sequences.  Di Leo and cowriter Sergio Donati (another Sergio Leone alum) pile on the twists and turns, ensuring that the story remains surprising and engaging throughout.  A solid supporting cast includes faded American leading man Richard Conte, two years away from a plum supporting part in The Godfather but already back at work on low budget Italian genre fare.

The Kidnap Syndicate (1975)

Starring Luc Merenda, James Mason, Irina Meleeva, Valentina Cortese, Vittorio Caprioli, Renato Romano

A plan to kidnap the child of a wealthy businessman (James Mason) backfires when the kidnappers are forced to abduct the child’s friend.  The father of the latter (Luc Merenda) refuses to sit idly by and negotiate with the criminals…

Kidnap Syndicate (aka La citta sconvolta, Caccia spietata di rapitori) is one of Di Leo’s more serious films of the period.  Loaded Guns, Nick the Sting and Rulers of the City all saw the director exploring the potential of (occasionally hamfisted) comedy elements being incorporated into his favored crime material, and the results were decidedly mixed.  No such intrusions are evident in this picture, which contains some of the best acting to be found in any of his films.  Merenda equals his fine work in Shoot First with his portrayal of the hardworking blue collar patriarch who is forced to contend with a gang of desperate criminals, while the great James Mason brings his customary class and style to his smaller role as the wealthy father who refuses to part so easily with his money.  Di Leo regular Vittorio Caprioli is also in good form as the exasperated police commissioner, while familiar character actors like Renato Romano (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage) and Tom Felleghy (The Cat O’Nine Tails) put in welcome appearances.  One time leading lady Valentina Cortese (an Oscar nominee for Truffaut’s Day for Night) is wasted in a nothing role as Mason’s wife.  Di Leo goes to pains to highlight the differences between the haves and the have nots, and it’s clear where his sympathies lie – Mason’s millionaire comes off as haughty and superficial, while Merenda’s “everyman” is dynamic and sympathetic throughout.  Though burdened by a few too many indifferently staged exposition scenes involving the police and their investigation, Kidnap Syndicate packs a punch where it counts.

Video:

Raro’s release of The Italian Crime Collection, Volume 2 is most welcome.  Though Kidnap Syndicate and Naked Violence had already been issued by Raro’s European branch on DVD, this set marks the home video debut of Shoot First.  All three films are presented in their original 1.85 aspect ratio and have been enhanced for widescreen TVs.  The 1080p transfers look as good as the source materials will allow – colors are vivid, detail is strong, and the prints are in generally fine condition, with only some minor imperfections which serve to remind one that these are older titles.  Grain is evident throughout and the films have not been over scrubbed with DNR.  The films are spread over three discs, and are Region A coded.

Audio:

Audio options for all three include both the English and Italian dubs.  One’s individual tastes will determine which tracks to listen to – familiar “English” voice talent like Mason and Conte do their own looping on the English tracks, while they are inevitably dubbed by Italian vocal artists on the Italian tracks.  The various tracks are in good shape – the funky music scores (two of the three are scored by Luis Bacalov) and copious displays of gun fire sound loud and clear, while dialogue is limited by the hollow nature of the dubbing process.  Easy to read, removable English subtitles are included for the Italian tracks.

Extras:

Extras include a collectible booklet with writing on all three films, as well as documentaries on all three films.  Di Leo, who passed away in 2003, is a feisty presence in the various documentaries, and he comes off as pragmatic and down to earth with regards to his attitude towards his own work.  Fans will definitely want to check out the various documentaries, which also include comments from the likes of Capponi, Merenda, and various key technicians and associates of Di Leo.

Film:

Naked Violence: *** out of *****; Shoot First, Die Later: ****1/2 out of *****; The Kidnap Syndicate: *** out of *****

Video:

Naked Violence: ***1/2 out of *****; Shoot First, Die Later: ***1/2 out of *****; The Kidnap Syndicate: ***1/2 out of *****

Audio:

Naked Violence: *** out of *****; Shoot First, Die Later: *** out of *****; The Kidnap Syndicate: *** out of *****

Extras (All three): ***** out of *****