Don Sharp photographed during interview session by John Exshaw. (Copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved.)
Cinema Retro's John Exshaw remembers a highly talented and often under-rated director.
“Don was first-class . . .
a really good film director. [He was] extremely capable, and he was very, very
interested in everything that he did. . . . He used to come well-prepared with
what he was going to shoot. . . . I don’t ever remember having problems with
making a [Don Sharp] film move and making a sequence move that one might have had . . . and
that’s why I’ve always had a lot of respect for Don, because the scenes that he
produced, they played so well.” – Eric Boyd-Perkins, editor (Hennessy, et al.)
“I will remember Don for
his determination to bring together the often disparate elements of a cast and
crew to produce a movie that was true to the intentions of its producer and
author: he was a true servant of the medium. Perhaps most of all I will
remember his patience and unfailing good humour. I had some of the best times
of my working life on the films he directed and I will remember him with great
affection.” – Richard Johnson, actor (Hennessy, et al.)
“Very, very calm. Very
calm and knew exactly what he wanted.” –
Sir Christopher Lee, actor (The Face of
Fu Manchu, et al.)
“He was one of the great
technicians in the business. He really was a very competent director in terms
of budget and schedules . . .” – Peter Snell,
producer (Hennessy, et al.)
“I kept using Don because
his films came in on budget and were without exception very successful. On top
of that he was a most agreeable person of very good character – no tantrums –
clear headed – resourceful; a gentleman too.” –
Harry Alan Towers, producer (The Face of
Fu Manchu, et al.)
was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Don Sharp, who passed
away, aged 90, in Cornwall on 14 December last year. I first met Don (and his
delightful wife, Mary) at their home in London in 2007, having arranged to
interview him about his career, and in particular the two films which I regard
as his finest, The Face of Fu Manchu
(1965) and Hennessy (1975). He seemed
quietly pleased that someone else shared his own good opinion of those films,
having, in the past, been mainly interviewed about the three films he made for
Hammer (The Kiss of the Vampire,
1963, The Devil-Ship Pirates, 1964,
and Rasputin, the Mad Monk, 1965).
a different sense, of course, I’d met Don many years before, through his films,
which always left an impression, no matter how unpromising the basic material;
I can well remember scanning the TV guides and making a point to watch anything
‘Directed by Don Sharp’. In those days, the TV schedules were full of the type
of British second-feature films that Don made, but his always had something
different – a sense of style and movement, in a word action – that made them stand out from the dross.
is worth emphasising how rare that quality was in British films of that period.
While Terence Fisher is justly celebrated for directing the most famous Hammer
films, his forte was atmosphere, combined with a certain classical rigour in
both composition and cutting derived, one imagines, from his years as an
editor. Seth Holt and Michael Reeves both made stylish and memorable
contributions to what, for the sake of immediate convenience, we’ll call the
horror genre, but the majority of British films in the horror-thriller field
were usually both dull in concept and laboured in execution, to put it kindly.
reports of certain events which would have appeared earlier, had fate and the
need to earn a buck not intervened.
Irish Film Institute,
24-28 August 2011
at the station for the 3:10 to Tara Street, I was feeling good – deep down
good, the way a man can feel when he’s got a bunch of Westerns to watch and a
passel of press passes in his pocket. Leaving the Iron Horse at Westland Row, I
cut across Grafton Street (no sign of them pesky Rykers) and on down to the
Irish Film Institute, where they were about to let rip with a four-day,
eight-film season called ‘The Western: Meanwhile Back at the Revolution ... The
Western As Political Allegory’. Well, I reckoned they could use all them fancy
five-dollar words and dress it up whatever they damn well liked, long as it
meant seeing some real Westerns on the big screen. As Randy Scott would’ve
said, “There’s some things a man can’t ride around—but Cowboys & Aliens ain’t one of them.” Ride clear of Diablo,
hell, ride clear of dumb CGI special effects movies is more like it . . .
I figured not only was this a chance to see some Westerns the way they were
meant to be seen but also an opportunity to have my say on films which wouldn’t
normally fit into the Cinema Retro
corral, being as they were made before 1960. Not that this is either the time
or the place for what you might call in-depth chin-stroking and
head-scratching—more like a chance to throw out some thoughts and see where they
up, perhaps predictably enough, was High
Noon (1952), described in the programme notes by season curator Declan
Clarke as “a commentary on the McCarthy witch-hunt and the failure of U.S.
intellectuals to stand up to the House Un-American Activities Committee.” This,
of course, has become pretty much the standard interpretation of High Noon but it would be interesting to
know to what extent it was perceived that way on its initial release; the
British critic Robin Wood has recalled that he was completely unaware of any
political subtext when he first saw the film, and it seems rather doubtful that
many citizens of Main Street, U.S.A., came out of their local cinemas saying,
“Gee, honey, that sure was one in the eye for Joe McCarthy!”
generally speaking, I prefer to see something of the West in my Westerns (even
if it’s Almería, west of Rome), High Noon
remains one of the best “town Westerns” ever made, notable as much for its
characterisation as for its celebrated manipulation of real time to build
suspense. In particular, one is struck by the refreshingly adult depiction of
Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado), a “woman with a past” who is required neither to
apologise for that past nor to expiate her supposed sins by catching one of
those stray “moral” bullets which usually account for such characters (e.g.,
Linda Darnell’s Chihuahua in Ford’s My
Darling Clementine, 1946). Other details I’d forgotten include the church
scene in which Thomas Mitchell appears to be lending his support to Marshal Kane
only to end up giving him the shaft, Howland Chamberlin’s nasty-minded hotel
clerk, and Harry Morgan urging his wife to tell Kane that he’s not in, that
he’s gone to church.
fortunate enough to be within a day’s ride of Dublin on Tuesday, 1 November,
should saddle up bright and early to catch the Irish Film Institute’s 40th
anniversary presentation of Sergio Leone’s A
Fistful of Dynamite, to be introduced by Leone biographer and Spaghetti
Western top-gun, Sir Christopher Frayling. Also participating in the event will
be director John Boorman, who assisted Leone in finding the locations used in
the film’s Irish flashback sequences, and Ireland’s top special-effects expert,
Gerry Johnston, who worked on the action scenes shot in Toner’s pub in Dublin’s
whose last appearance at the IFI (introducing Once Upon a Time in the West) was the highpoint of the 2000 season,
will use extracts from such films as John Ford’s The Informer (1935) and The
Quiet Man (1952) to examine Leone’s response to Ford’s romantic vision of
Ireland and Irish history, as well as casting an eye on the political Spaghetti
Westerns of film-makers such as Damiano Damiani, Sergio Sollima, and Giulio
Petroni. Also included will be rare footage of Leone directing the opening
sequence of A Fistful of Dynamite.
Festival Director Daniel Fitzpatrick (L) with Kevin Brownlow.
By John Exshaw
A mere twelve days after introducing Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the National Concert Hall, Kevin Brownlow, silent cinema’s resident saint and scholar, returned to Ireland for the recently concluded third Killruddery Film Festival, held at the eponymous House and Gardens outside Bray in County Wicklow. The event, which proved as popular as its predecessor last year, saw Brownlow, with his customary boyish enthusiasm, present no less than seven films over a three-day period, as well as delivering a highly diverting history of Irish involvement in the development of early Hollywood.
The festival, masterminded once again by director Daniel Fitzpatrick, kicked off on Thursday night with a meet-and-greet, followed by a selection of films made by the Kalem Company in Ireland around 100 years ago, along with an accompanying documentary. On Friday, and with a mixture of both curiosity and foreboding, I pitched up for the first film to be presented by Kevin, Abel Gance’s four-and-a-half hour La Roue (The Wheel, 1922). Famed for its stylistic innovations, in particular the use of rapid cutting, La Roue tells the story of Sisif, a train driver who saves an orphaned child from a wreck and decides to rear her as his own daughter. Complications set in when Sisif (Séverin-Mars) later falls in love with the fifteen-year-old Norma (played by director Ronald Neame’s mother, Ivy Close), who is also loved by his son Elie (Gabriel de Gravone), who of course believes that Norma is his sister. After that, everyone does a great deal of suffering, as the story moves from the train yards to the French Alps, where Sisif has been sent in disgrace after deliberately crashing his train.
Mind-boggling though Gance’s mastery of technique is, the film is definitely something of an endurance test, and at one point, when Elie cries out, “Rails, wheels, smoke! How gloomy it all is!” I found myself nodding in fervent agreement. Afterwards, Kevin asked me what I thought of it. “Well,” I said, “obviously, from a technical point of view, it’s an astonishing achievement. On the other hand, it’s rather like being beaten over the head with a Victor Hugo novel for four-and-a-half hours.”“That could be a good thing,” suggested Kevin, whose idea of fun clearly deviates rather drastically from mine after a certain point. With the festival unfortunately coming at a particularly busy time for me, I felt I had done my duty for the day and duly wheeled off, leaving Kevin and his merry band of enthusiasts to the joys of White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927).
Previous engagements, not least with the Wales vs. Ireland Six Nations match from Cardiff, kept me occupied on Saturday, which began with the annual visit of Sunniva O’Flynn, Curator of the Irish Film Institute, with her can of goodies from the IFI archive, this time containing three children’s films dating from the 1940s and 1950s. These were followed by three “Early Masterpieces of the Avant Garde”, including a 1928 version of The Fall of the House of Usher, presented by Daniel Fitzpatrick. Later on, Kevin presented Lewis Milestone’s The Garden of Eden (1928), starring Corinne Griffith, and the day finished with a screening of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes (1992), which really didn’t sound like my kind of thing.
Earlier this week, I figured it was about time to catch up with the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit before it rode off the big screen and into the DVD sunset. And what with it failing to win any Oscars – not even for Best Beards in a Motion Picture – I reckoned the time was just about right. You see, I never paid much heed to all that “cinema as shared experience” bull. I generally prefer to bide my time until the opening week claim-jumpers and second-week popcorn-guzzlers have moved on to something else, and there’s just me and the janitor’s cat ridin’ that lonesome trail in the dark . . .
Like everybody else, I reckon, my first reaction on hearing that Les Frères Cohen – as I believe they’re known down N’Awleans way – were remaking True Grit was what in the hell for? Which is pretty much what I said when I heard they were gussying up 3:10 to Yuma a few years back. But that, as they say, is a steer of a different brand. . . .Still, I can’t truthfully claim that True Grit ever figured on any wanted list of movies-that-need-remaking that I’ve ever posted, anymore than 3:10 did. What’s more, I always had the idea that pretty much everybody was happy with the job Big John and Henry Hathaway done back there in ʼ69. So what did these boys think they were doing? Just because one of ʼem is named after Joel McCrea and t’other after Ethan Edwards don’t mean they got any business doggin’ the Duke’s tracks. As Randy Scott would’ve said, “Man needs a reason to ride this country. You got a reason?”
Well, turns out, according to Joel in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, that the boys “didn’t read Charles Portis when we were young; we discovered him only as adults. But when I read True Grit to my son, I thought that it would be a fun film to make.” Mighty touching, you might think, mighty touching. Hell, maybe even John Ford would’ve gone for that scene with Pappy Coen reading out loud to his towheaded kid on the porch, but as reasons go I just can’t see it carrying much weight with Randy. To quote Lucky Ned Pepper himself, it’s just “Too thin, Rooster! Too thin!”
Anyhow, then I started in on reading the reviews, which is not something a man should ever do sober, and sure enough, most of them critics were drooling over this new version and jabbering on about how the Coens had gone back to the original 1968 novel by Charles Portis, and wasn’t it just great? Trouble is, of course, the critics always say any new film by the Coen boys is great, much like they used to say every hold-up pulled by the James boys was the most daring and dastardly ever seen - which weren’t hardly the case back then and sure as hell ain’t the case now, not by a long shot.
Saturday, 26 February, saw the triumphant return of director Rex Ingram – or at any rate, his most celebrated film – to the city of his birth, as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse thundered once more across the big screen at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last seen at the same venue in 1993 (the centenary of Ingram’s birth), the film was showing as part of the recently-concluded Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and, as on that previous occasion, the score was again performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, this time under the direction of David Brophy.
Ingram’s masterpiece not only propelled Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry to international stardom but made Ingram himself the leading director of his day, with complete power over all future projects and his own studio in the south of France. But while Valentino has retained his iconic status – albeit of a somewhat dubious and necrophiliac character – Ingram’s reputation (along with that of scriptwriter June Mathis, the driving force behind The Four Horsemen), has been allowed to slide into undeserved obscurity. Even this showing, in his native city, was billed as a 90th. anniversary of the film itself, rather than as a tribute to Ingram; had it been screened here last year, as it was in July at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in L.A., it could at least have been promoted as commemorating the 60th. anniversary of Ingram’s death in 1950.
Be that as it may, The Four Horsemen proceeded to play to a gratifyingly full house at the NCH – and on an evening when people might otherwise have been expected – at least by self-regarding politicians – to show some passing interest in the results of the general election, held the day before. Then again, perhaps Ingram’s film, itself allegorical, struck a chord in a country recently devastated by its own version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Greed, Cronyism, Clerical Criminality, and the IMF. With tickets ranging from a not-inconsiderable €25-€35, the screening also proved something of a recession-buster, attracting an audience comprised largely of the well-heeled, together with a sprinkling of the self-consciously “orty”, all hoping not to be noticed in their look-at-me outfits and silly hats.
Following their excellent John Phillip Law: Diabolik Angel (see review here), authors Carlos Aguilar and Anita Haas have turned their attention to an interesting, if rather less well-known, figure of Sixties’ and Seventies’ European popular cinema, the Spanish director Eugenio Martín. Best known abroad for two stupendously awful Euro Westerns, Bad Man’s River and Pancho Villa (both 1971) and that perennial late-night favourite, Horror Express (1972), Martín may seem rather unlikely material for a book-length study, but, as suggested by its title, Eugenio Martín: un autor para todos los géneros (roughly, ‘Eugenio Martín: An Author for Every Genre’), it is his work in a wide variety of genres, and particularly his career as a gun-for-hire throughout Spain’s peak years as a low-cost location for international co-productions, that should prove of interest to readers of Cinema Retro.
At which point, a word of warning – unlike Diabolik Angel, which has text in both Spanish and English, Eugenio Martín has Spanish text only. Published in conjunction with the Retroback Classic Cinema Festival of Granada (see Anita’s report for Cinema Retro by clicking here), this obvious drawback as far as non-Spanish-speaking readers is concerned is to a large extent negated by the mass of production stills and posters which illustrate the book.
Boorman in conversation at the Irish Film Institute. (Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved.)
By John Exshaw
While the Irish Film Institute’s recently concluded French Film Festival (18-28 November) provided a number of interesting divertissements for those seeking a respite, if not deliverance, from the seemingly endless catalogue of corruption, cronyism, clerical criminality, and chronic incompetence that has engulfed the country in recent times, the highlight of the programme for the discerning cinéaste was undoubtedly the joint appearance on Sunday 21st. of director John Boorman and eminent French film critic, Michel Ciment, for a Q&A session following the screening of Phillipe Pilard’s 2009 documentary, John Boorman: Portrait.
Boorman, of course, is that relatively rara avis, a British auteur, one whose body of work (or oeuvre, as they like to say in France) has tended, as is often the way, to command greater respect abroad than at home. Ciment has long been an influential supporter, collaborating with the director on the book ‘John Boorman’ (Faber & Faber, 1985), originally published in France as ‘Boorman: un visionnaire en son temps’, and also conducting the interview which comprises Pilard’s 52-minute film.
Now 77, and looking dapper in suede jacket, blue shirt, and rust corduroys, Boorman opened proceedings by remarking, “I haven’t seen it [the documentary] before, and I have to say I was very embarrassed at how inarticulate I am. It reminded me – you know, Michel wrote a book about my films, a wonderful book, and the basis of it was an interview I did with him after each film, and he then translated my stumbling, inarticulate words into good French. Later, the book was published in English, and Gilbert Adair, who’s a very stylish writer, translated it from the French back to English. So between Michel’s very fine writing and Gilbert Adair’s stylish writing I was astonished how witty and articulate and clever I turned out to be. It was rather like James Thurber – once, you know, a woman came up to him who was very proud of her French and she said, “Oh, I read your book in French and I have to tell you it was hilarious in French.” And Thurber said, “Yes, it loses something in the original.” In the case of Michel’s book, on the other hand, it actually gained an enormous amount in English. . . .”
Aldo Sanbrell photographed in 2007 by John Exshaw. (Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved.)
BY JOHN EXSHAW
With the death of Aldo Sanbrell, who passed
away in Alicante last Saturday (10 July), aged 79, another link to the great
days of Italian film-making – and the Italian Western, in particular – has been
lost. The only actor to appear in all of Sergio Leone’s Westerns, Aldo was the
most prominent and recognisable of all those mean-looking hombres who rode the badlands and bit the dust of Almería in those
far-off days when southern Spain was the Wild West – Italian style. Asked once
by a British director if he “knew how to die,” Aldo replied, “Oh yes, señor, I
have been killed in many film fights here in Almería. I have died for Clint
Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Charles Bronson, George Scott . . . I have made 185
films and I have been killed in all of them. Yes, I know how to die.”
Aldo, photographed at home in Alicante, 2008 - and always ready for action. (Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved.)
Aldo’s most memorable performances were as
the hapless gang member, Cuchillo, framed and gunned down by Gian María
Volonté’s Indio in For a Few Dollars More
(1965), and as Mervyn Duncan, the Indian-hating scalp hunter of Sergio
Corbucci’s Navajo Joe (1966). In the
latter film, Sanbrell made an indelible impression in the opening sequence,
gunning down an innocent squaw and then scalping her, his nostrils flaring with
hate and bloodlust as his men launch a murderous assault on a peaceful Indian
tribe. Having snarled, flogged, and killed his way through the rest of the
film, Duncan finally receives his just desserts, dispatched with a tomahawk in
the head hurled by a bewigged Burt Reynolds. A year later, Corbucci gave Aldo
another showy, though less significant, role as a sword-wielding bandido in The Hellbenders.
Imagine my surprise, on perusing last week’s Sunday Times, to discover that none other than the great Kevin Brownlow, Mr. Silent Cinema himself, was scheduled to appear, if not “at a cinema near you”, then at least at a rambling country estate not a million miles from me. Hot damn! I thought, and I’m sure you’ll agree it was warranted. For anyone with even a sliver of interest in the history of cinema, Brownlow is a positively Olympian figure, the man who, trusty two-reel tape recorder in hand, assiduously stalked the retirement homes of the Hollywood Hills to capture the last flickering memories of a time when the movies moved, later collected in his classic 1968 book, The Parade’s Gone By . . . The man who, together with his collaborator, the late David Gill, rescued and restored such great films as Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Abel Gance’s monumental Napoléon (1927), before returning them to the world, with scores by Carl Davis, in the manner in which they were meant to be seen. And the man behind a series of definitive documentaries on such luminaries as Griffith, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. Hot damn, indeed.
(NOTE: THIS IS A REVISED POSTING OF THE REVIEW. DUE TO A TECHNICAL PROBLEM, THE ORIGINAL POSTING WAS INCOMPLETE)
JOHN PHILIP LAW: DIABOLIK ANGEL
By Carlos Aguilar & Anita Hass
Foreword by Ray Harryhausen
Review by John Exshaw
Towards the end of John Phillip Law: Diabolik Angel, authors Carlos Aguilar and Anita Haas describe their book as “an unfinished work”, anticipating, as they did, further films in the strange career of an actor best remembered for playing the black-clad super-criminal in Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968), the blind angel, Pygar, in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), and the turbaned hero of The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). Sadly, as it turned out, Diabolik Angel will stand instead as the last word on Law, who died of cancer at the age of 70 in May of last year, during the final stages of the book’s preparation.
Due, in part, to his association with such iconic, but necessarily two-dimensional, characters as Diabolik and Sinbad, Law himself remained something of a screen enigma, a somewhat remote, otherworldly presence whose own personality was seldom discernable in the roles he played. His best non-fantasy performances – as the naïve Russian submariner in The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (1965), the haunted protagonist of Death Rides a Horse (1967), the object of Rod Steiger’s affections in The Sergeant (1968), and the deadly but anachronistic knight of the air in Von Richthofen and Brown (1971, a.k.a. The Red Baron) – were sufficiently compelling and varied (though united by a certain innocence) to suggest that Law would become a leading character star of the 1970s. And yet somehow such status eluded him.
Reflecting on this, Law remarked, “A lot of people have told me that I had all the qualities to be a big star, one of the biggest of my generation. Like Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, who are both the same age as me, and both started at the same time. But the point is that I never wanted to be a star, I wanted to be an actor, and that isn’t the same thing. Besides, there was always the problem of my height [6’5”]: I was too tall to play somebody’s son, and too baby-faced to look like someone’s father. That’s why they almost always gave me roles of special characters, like comic book heroes, and historical figures.”
Combined with that, as Aguilar and Haas make clear, Law “came across few projects that suited his peculiarities [and] without a doubt . . . made some bad and irreversible mistakes.” The latter included turning down the Jon Voight part in Midnight Cowboy (on his agent’s advice) and that of Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider (due to a schedule conflict). In addition to rejecting films which he should, in retrospect, have accepted, Law also displayed a spectacular talent for picking those best avoided, such as Otto Preminger’s late-period duds, Hurry Sundown (1967) and Skidoo (1968), the soporific The Hawaiians (1970), the conspicuously flaccid The Love Machine (1971), and that byword for self-indulgence and ill-discipline, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (also 1971), a title that would prove all too prophetic with respect to Law’s standing as a Hollywood star.
In 1969, the year he missed out on both Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, Law also suffered the indignity of being replaced in the cast of The Gypsy Moths, following a parachute accident in which he was injured, and a poor relationship with his co-stars: “The atmosphere was terrible. Burt Lancaster was the star... a very egotistical man, who didn’t help anybody while shooting. . . . He couldn’t stand me, I suppose it was because I was taller than him. I can’t think of any other reason. Then there was Gene Hackman, another difficult person who is always trying to steal the show. Good actor, but not a good person. And the director, John Frankenheimer was always drunk before noon. . . .” Aeronautical accidents were to feature again in Law’s career two years later, when, during the shooting of Roger Corman’s Von Richthofen and Brown, several stunt flyers were killed.
years ago today, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon
a Time in the West had its world première in Rome, an event which, it goes
without saying, should not be allowed to pass without notice, even though that
is precisely what seems to have happened throughout this anniversary year.
Whereas 2005 saw the opening of the Once
Upon a Time in Italy...: The Westerns of Sergio Leone exhibition at the
Autry Museum in Los Angeles, followed, in 2006, by commemorative events marking
the fortieth anniversary of The Good, the
Bad and Ugly, and a season of Italian Westerns at the 2007 Venice film
Festival, 2008 has come and (almost) gone with not so much as a screeching
train whistle sounded in celebration of what is often called “the greatest
Western ever made”.
was, of course, a showing of the newly restored version of the film at the
Samuel Goldwyn Theater in L.A. in June, which was billed by the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as marking “the 40th anniversary of
the film’s 1968 release in Italy”, though the fact the restoration had already
been shown at the Rome Film Festival in October, 2007, suggested that this was
more a matter of convenient timing than a committed attempt to celebrate the
Great Event. Even when the restoration played, as part of the London Film Festival,
to a packed house in Leicester Square this October, it was left to Sir
Christopher Frayling to make the point in his introduction that it was in fact the film’s fortieth
anniversary. He could also, had he wished, have drawn attention to the irony of
Paramount Pictures paying what one can safely assume was considerably more than
a fistful of dollars to restore a film which they themselves had butchered in
the first place (giving it, in the memorable words of films & filming’s David Austen, “the appearance of having been
savaged by a rampant lawn-mower”), but was, of course, far too polite to do so.
such screenings may certainly be considered better than a poke in the eye with
a pointed stick, they nonetheless fall far short of what might – and ought – to have been done. Open-air
showings in Monument Valley, for instance, exhibitions in Almería and at
Cinecittà Studios, a special concert to mark both the film’s release and the recent eightieth birthday of
composer Ennio Morricone, the carving of Charles Bronson’s face into Mount
Rushmore – to name only the most obvious.
way, however, this muted (or, to be blunt, virtually non-existent) response
mirrors the film’s initial reception in 1968-1969. In Italy, it made a
respectable box-office showing, though less so than The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In France, it proved hugely
popular, running in Paris for two years. But in America, the shortened (by some
twenty-odd minutes) version took only one million dollars before being
consigned to cinematic Boot Hill, the words of Time magazine’s verdict carved on its marker: “Tedium in the
Tumbleweed”. Audiences expecting another installment in the Dollars series were disappointed by the film’s deliberate pace and
relative lack of action and humour (to say nothing of the fact that the story,
post-Paramount cuts, didn’t make much sense). And critics, many of whom were
hostile to the very idea of Italian Westerns, unwisely chose to dismiss the
film instead of reserving judgment (as the aforementioned David Austen did)
until a more complete version was made available. Nor were they prepared to
accept what Christopher Frayling terms Leone’s decision to collide “fairy tale
images of the West with the real thing,” which, as John Gillett darkly put it
in the Monthly Film Bulletin,
suggested “that Leone has set out to make a Western for Art.”
of course, Once Upon a Time in the West
has completed a comeback only marginally less improbable than George Foreman’s second
tenure as heavyweight champion of the world, regularly featuring in lists of
the Top Ten Westerns of all time, and finding an echo in films as diverse as
they are generally unworthy (Once Upon a
Time in Mexico, Once Upon a Time in
China, Once Upon a Time in the
Midlands), to say nothing of being championed by such notables as John
Boorman, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino.
As Boorman so eloquently put it, “In Once
Upon a Time in the West the Western reaches its apotheosis. Leone’s title
is a declaration of intent and also his gift to America of its lost fairy
stories. This is the kind of masterpiece that can occur outside trends and
fashion. It is both the greatest and the last Western.”
year will see a double-bill of Leone anniversaries – the eightieth of his birth
and the twentieth of his death – and it is to be hoped that fitting
commemorative events will be arranged to mark both occasions (as well as the
release of Once Upon a Time in the West
outside Italy). At present, Sir Christopher Frayling, the man who has done more
for Leone’s reputation than anyone else, is in discussion with the Italian
Cultural Institute in London to arrange a Leone symposium, complete with
exhibition and screenings, for April, the month of Leone’s death. And surely it
would take little effort to persuade Ennio Morricone to arrange a special
concert in honour of his greatest collaborator and friend? And then there’s
Rome, and Almería, and Arizona . . . In the Chinese calendar, 2009 is
designated the Year of the Ox, but among aficionados of Sergio Leone, the
Western, and great cinema, it will be surely be known as the Year of the Lion .
We never know what to expect when Cinema Retro's John Exshaw reports on an event - except that it will be from a unique angle... Here's John's first-hand coverage of Robert Redford's recent visit to Trinity College in Dublin...oh, and if you're among those of us who have committed to memory the dialogue from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, you'll find the coverage even more enjoyable.
A Public Interview with Robert Redford presented by the
School of Drama, Film and Music, Trinity College, Dublin – Thursday, 10 July,
Report by John Exshaw – 18/7/08
Raindrops keep falling on my head as I make my way towards
Trinity College, Dublin, for a showdown with the Sundance Kid. On what passes
for a summer’s day in Ireland, Robert Redford has ridden into town for
tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, at which he will receive an honorary
Doctorate of Letters from the country’s most prestigious seat of learning – alma
mater of such luminaries as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and
Samuel Beckett, to name but a few. Before that, however, he has sportingly
agreed to be interrogated by Michael Dwyer, film critic of The Irish Times,
in a public interview to be held in the college’s Edmund Burke theatre.
I arrive in the modernist eyesore that is the TCD’s Arts
Building and stand in the foyer, pools of water forming round my feet. To be
frank, I’m feeling pretty Randolph Scott – saddle-sore and in no mood for small
talk. It’s not just the shitty weather, nor the fact that I should be working
on my Hennessy article for the next issue of Cinema Retro. No,
what’s riling me – the particular burr under my saddle blanket – is the
following line in an e-mail I received about this evening’s gabfest: “Please
note that at the request of Robert Redford’s publicist no recording is
permitted during this event.” Just like that. No apology, no explanation. No
doubt the Duke would approve but, personally, it’s just the sort of bullshit
that’s liable to get me all fired up. And a fired-up Retro writer ain’t
a pretty sight . . .
The Great Waldo Pepper arrives at the Trinity College seminar in Dublin. (Photo copyright: John Exshaw)
This was my first encounter, even at a distance, with that
mythical creature of ill-repute, the Hollywood Publicist, and my first thought,
naturally enough, was what an asshole! Why the hell shouldn’t
journalists be allowed to record what someone says in a public interview in
order to report it accurately? Or, to put it another way, in order to do our
job properly? Is it possible theasshole
in question would prefer his client’s comments to be reported inaccurately?
Or is he (assuming for the moment that the asshole in question is a male
asshole, while not implying that women don’t have every right to be assholes
too) afraid that the interview might fall into the hands of someone who’ll
re-edit it in such a way as to make his client sound, well, like an asshole? If
there are good reasons (at least from a publicist’s point of view) for such a
prohibition, then he should at least have the manners to say what they are. And
if there aren’t, then he should stop being such an asshole.
So, in a fairly ornery mood, I head into the theatre.
There’s no sign of Mr. Redford’s publicist, which is a pity because I’d like to
have given him a piece of my mind. Followed by a Harvey Logan Special in the
nuts. The seats in the theatre are quickly filled by the (mainly female)
audience. Forty minutes after the supposed kick-off, and following an
introduction from Kevin Rockett, head of the School of Drama, Film and Music
and a four-minute compilation of Redford’s Greatest Movie Moments, I’m still
standing in the designated photographers’ area like an unemployed cigar store
Indian, camera in hand, awaiting the star of the show. I remember something
George Roy Hill said in The Making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
about Redford having to listen to Paul Newman’s lame jokes while Newman had to
endure Redford’s habitual tardiness. That was 39 years ago, and it looks like
nothing’s changed on the latter score. Well, they do say consistency is a
virtue . . .
Finally, the doors open and the Great Man – indeed the Great
Waldo Pepper – makes his entrance, setting off some mild (mainly female)
hysteria in the audience. I grab some pictures and hotfoot it back to my seat.
By the time I’ve put my camera away and got my notebook open, Redford has
nearly finished his thoughts on what Dwyer terms the possible “regime change”
in America in the forthcoming presidential election. Looking back now on my
notes, I see the following: “Yes … inexperienced … good … need for change …
yesterday … age is an issue.” What on earth does it mean? Maybe something like,
“Yes, we need a change. John McCain is inexperienced but was good yesterday.
Barack Obama’s age is an issue.” Or maybe it was the other way round? But as I
can’t play it back on my trusty Dictaphone, you’ll just have to make sense of
it for yourselves, won’t you? (for which you can thank that asshole . . .)
Finally, following some recollections about how, when he was
studying in Paris, Redford was “humiliated” by his own ignorance of American
politics, the talk moves on to movies and I’m able to get my act together and
focus. And so, taking our cue from the title sequence of Butch Cassidy and
the Sundance Kid, you can take it that “Most of what follows is true” . . .
ALL TIME HIGH: BARRY STRIKES DUBLIN
RTÉ Summer Evening Concert Season: The Film Music of John
The National Concert Hall, Dublin, Friday 20 June, 2008
Report by John Exshaw – 22/6/08
To say that the John Barry concert in Dublin on Friday 20 June went over big would
be a gross understatement, if not an outright distortion. Giving the first-ever
concert of his film music in the capital, the multiple Oscar-winning composer
was cheered to the rafters by a packed house at the National Concert Hall – and
before a single note had even been played. By the end of the evening – and two
standing ovations later – it was clear that the 74-year-old veteran, who seemed
genuinely moved by the warmth of his reception, could consider his no-doubt arduous
six-hour flight from New York to have been very much worth the effort, a
sentiment heartily endorsed by his enthusiastic and appreciative audience.
(Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved)
The concert, part of the Summer Evening season arranged by
RTÉ, the national broadcaster, and featuring the RTÉ National Symphony
Orchestra, was presented by Aedín Gormley, host of the station’s Movie &
Musicals programme on lyric fm, which was broadcasting the event
live, and it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Barry himself would take the
baton for the two opening pieces, Goldfinger (1964) and We Have All
the Time in the World (from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969),
as it had initially been thought that he would only be in attendance, rather
When the applause that greeted these
two pieces had eventually subsided, Barry gave way on the podium to Nicholas
Dodd – orchestrator and conductor of, inter alia, the Bond movies The
World is Not Enough (1999), Die Another Day (2002) and Casino
Royale (2006) – who proceeded to send a shiver down the collective spine
with the ominous and threatening theme from Zulu (1964), followed by Somewhere
in Time (1980), Moviola (1993), and the main themes from The
Persuaders (1971-1972), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), and Midnight
Cowboy (1969, and featuring an excellent, mournful harmonica solo by John
Murray Ferguson), before taking us into the interval with a suite comprising
pieces from Dances with Wolves (1990).
The second part of the concert
included Born Free (1966), All Time High (from Octopussy,
1983), Out of Africa (1985, and a particular favourite of Gormley’s
listeners on RTÉlyric fm), Body Heat (1981, featuring a
marvellously slinky sax solo by Fintan Sutton), the incidental piece Space
March from You Only Live Twice (1967), and the theme from The
Knack…and How to Get It (1965). The finale was provided by the James
Bond Suite, a suitably roof-raising crowd-pleaser comprised of 007, From
Russia with Love (both 1963), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live
Twice, Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and On
Her Majesty’s Secret Service as well.
Nicholas Dodd and John Barry. (Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved)
During this amazing sequence, Dodd
not only got the best out of the orchestra (ably led by first violin, Alan
Smale), but provided a splendid spectacle himself – arms waving, hair flying
everywhere, hands thrusting out, cajoling and coaxing, his body swaying and
bouncing to the rhythm – at one point so wrapped up in the music that he had to
turn two pages of the score in immediate succession just to catch up with
himself (even though it was obvious he knows it all by heart).
John Barry then came onto the
podium for the first of his standing ovations, before removing himself to a
safe distance as Dodd tore into an encore of the full 007 piece. When
Barry rejoined him, Dodd proved himself as good at working an audience as he is
at working an orchestra, giving the crowd an exaggerated deaf ear gesture to
encourage even more applause for the beaming Barry, who closed proceedings with
a brief but heartfelt thank-you speech.
At the reception afterwards, and
spurred on by the stern maxim that ‘Cinema Retro always gets its man’, I
managed to ask Barry a few questions before being stampeded by a pack of
autograph hounds. What criteria, I enquired, does he apply when approached to
score a film? To which, in a voice still retaining traces of his native
Yorkshire, he replied, “I think the number one single thing is a great script –
that it’s a really great story, you know, with a beginning and a middle and an
end, and it’s almost like a piece of literature. And then the director, of
course. Meet with the director and see that he loves it and what he’s going to
do with it. And once you get a great script and a great director, you’re in
very good shape.”
Remembering that Sergio Leone
would sometimes preface a question to Ennio Morricone by helpfully saying, “You
know, it’s the one which goes da-da-da”, I asked Barry what happens if the
director is a musical illiterate and says, I’d like a bit here that goes dum-dee-dum-dee-dum?
“Then fuck you!” Barry laughs. “ No, no, the good directors trust you, they
don’t start whistling things in your ear because, you know, they either hire
you because you know what the hell you’re doing – so don’t hire me and then
start telling me what to do! I mean, [with] a good director I say, what kind of
a mood do you want, what are we trying to say? Like Out of Africa,
Sydney Pollack talked what he wanted then I went away and wrote it. So
that kind of help – what the emotion is between the two main characters and all
that, that’s the kind of direction I like, and I can use.
Aedín Gormley and John Barry (Photo copyright John Exshaw. All rights reserved)
Recalling also Morricone’s assertion that, unlike other
composers, a film composer must be familiar with the musical style of any era
in which a movie might be set, I asked Barry if, with a film like The Lion
in Winter (1968, set in medieval England), he had to research the musical
history of the period. “No,” he replied, “because I studied with Dr. Francis
Jackson, who was my first teacher and he was a Master of Music at York Minster,
so all that choral stuff in Latin, I knew all that. So although everybody
thought, oh this is new, it was actually sort of the first stuff I’d done, so
that’s why I loved doing that movie.”
Soon after which the autograph hounds butted in, so I took
my leave and found refuge on a sofa next to Nicholas Dodd, still perspiring
happily following his tremendous exertions onstage. Seizing the moment, I asked
him how he came to be involved with tonight’s concert, and about his
association with John Barry. Pausing only to wipe his brow, he said, “Well, the
first time John saw me working was in Abbey
Road studios, on an album of The Ten Tenors. They
were taking his famous themes, like Out of Africa,
and [long-time Barry collaborator] Don Black put lyrics to them and I was the
orchestrator. And John had heard of me because I’ve been involved in the last
three James Bonds, orchestrating, conducting. I’d met him a couple of times,
but at that point it’s when he saw me – I think it was about three or four
years ago – and things sort of progressed from there . . .”
Remarking on his obvious joy in conducting, I asked if there
was something particular in John Barry’s music to which he responded. “Damn
good themes!” he responded without hesitation. “And that’s it. Beautifully
orchestrated by Nic Raine and beautifully played this evening by the RTÉ
National. It’s absolutely marvelous the way they played. And they’re just good
themes and well-orchestrated – it’s just thoroughly good music.” From a
technical point of view, are some of them harder to get right in performance
than others? “Not really, no. All of John’s music and all of his themes – and
that’s why he is a legend and so well-known and loved – [succeed because] quite
simply he writes music that communicates very easily to most people. And it’s
very accessible music, so whilst a theme may be different, like Out of
Africa which seems to have just a little more coherency in the sense of
being such a strong theme – whereas others are not so well-known and not so
popular. But that doesn’t mean to say they’re any less of a theme. So, in a
technical sense, they’re all the same, to bring out the push-and-pull of the
Before hitting the highway, I buttonholed Julie Knight,
press officer of RTÉ lyric fm, to discover if there were any plans for
further movie-related concerts. Nothing definite, she replied, though she
intended to pursue a suggestion put to her this evening that a certain
well-known Continental composer might be persuaded to do his thing at the NCH
in the near future – provided, of course, that the sky does not fall on his
aged head in the meantime and that Paris
is not burning . . .
We've intercepted this Top Secret memo that divulges inside information about the recent VIP opening of For Your Eyes Only, the new Ian Fleming exhibition taking place at the Imperial War Museum, London. Read it, then forget you ever saw the memo....
From: Head of R, GCHQ
Subject: Former SMERSH sleeper agent, code-name Deep Sleep Six (Real name: Krassno Granitskiovich. Aliases: Red Grant, Jr., Captain Norwood Nash)
Documentation: E-mail intercept, sent to G, head of SMERSH Veterans’ Association
Greetings Comrade G,
Following instructions, attended opening of special exhibition, ‘For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond’, at Imperial War Museum, London, 16 April, 2008, having neutralised and taken the place of reporter of nostalgic-revisionist organ ‘Cinema Retro’, using silicone mask provided by Otdyel II. Met at museum (dedicated to past glories of British imperialist war-mongers) by the American, Pfeiffer, and the Briton, Worrall, capitalist running-dogs and editors of aforementioned ‘Cinema Retro’. Enemy failed to penetrate disguise.
Photo copyright Mark Mawston. All rights reserved.
Event began with Bollinger champagne reception (not Dom Pérignon, as favoured by British assassin and enemy of the Russian and former Soviet peoples, James Bond). Speech of welcome given by Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire, GCB, DFC, AFC, DSc, FRAeS, Chairman of the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum. Follow-up speech by the Right Honourable Margaret Hodge, Minister of State for Culture, Media, and Sport. Official opening speech delivered by Miss Honor Blackman, actress responsible for impersonating Pussy Galore, former associate of deceased agent, Auric Goldfinger.
Exhibition dedicated to life of Ian Fleming, fascist hyena and biographer of the killer Bond, on pretext of centenary of birth (see conclusion below). Items of interest include: bourgeois dinner-jacket and bow tie belonging to the author; desk and Remington Remette typewriter from Goldeneye, the author’s colonial-imperialist home in Jamaica; copy of ‘Checklist of Birds of the West Indies’ (1947) by James Bond (a transparent attempt to confuse real-life assassin with local ornithologist); a recipe for scrambled eggs, headed “Scrambled Eggs Never Let You Down” (copy forwarded for deciphering); book entitled ‘Sea Fauna or The Finny Tribe of Golden Eye’, with notes and illustrations by Fleming; and manuscript of propaganda work, ‘Casino Royale’, detailing the regrettable failure of SMERSH operative, Le Chiffre.
Fleming's desk - where James Bond novels came to life. (Photo copyright Mark Mawston. All rights reserved.)
These items followed by various family portraits and mementos, including letters from enemy of the Revolution, Winston Churchill; Christmas stockings large enough to clothe an entire village of peasants; various sporting trophies from Eton, the so-called public school (and breeding ground of reactionary imperialist swine); and various documents pertaining to the class enemy Fleming’s time spent as a “journalist” (a remarkably transparent cover) in Moscow, including a denied request for an interview signed by our late, Great and Glorious Leader, the much-loved Chairman Stalin himself! (Overcome with emotion, I found myself singing the Internationale – until I noticed the American Pfeiffer looking at me suspiciously. Strongly suspect this Pfeiffer may be none other than the Yankee pig-dog Felix Leiter, lackey of the CIA and cohort of Bond.)
The next exhibits are dedicated to the fantasist Fleming’s secret service in the Naval Intelligence Division during the Great Struggle against the forces of National Socialism. These include the coat worn by Fleming during his observation of the Dieppe Raid in 1942, a courier’s passport allowing him passage from Madrid to Gibraltar; various documents pertaining to his work with Rear Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, and the clandestine activities of 30 Assault Unit, overseen by Fleming, as well as information on the German V1 and V2 flying bombs, allegedly the forerunners of former Soviet agent Drax’s Moonraker rocket. A manuscript offictional ‘Moonraker’, with original title, ‘Mondays Are Hell’, crossed out and replaced by the words “The Moonraker”, is also displayed.
The post-Struggle section of the exhibition includes a Mercury News map of the world showing the location of various journalists (and spies, as we well know) employed by the Sunday Times newspaper, of which Fleming was the foreign news manager, along with various souvenir items from the author’s effete and luxurious travels for a series of articles (and later book), ‘Thrilling Cities’. This is followed by a most interesting item – a portrait of the killer, Bond, commissioned by Fleming circa 1957, incontestable proof that the assassin known as 007 really exists and was not just a figment of the lap-dog Fleming’s decadent day-dreams (as the British establishment, with inexplicable perversity, would have the masses believe). After all, even a degenerate bourgeois like Fleming would not commission a portrait of a non-existent character! There is also a cup, in the shape of a chamber pot, presented by Fleming to the Old Etonian Golfing Society – a typical example of British public school humour. This is followed by a case containing first editions of Fleming’s glorification of the murderous functionary, Bond, and original art-work for the books by the illustrator, Richard Chopping.
An extensive display of Bond books.(Photo copyright Mark Mawston. All rights reserved.)
CINEMA RETRO'S JOHN EXSHAW REPORTS ON A MEMORABLE TRIBUTE TO HAMMER FILMS WRITER/DIRECTOR JIMMY SANGSTER
JIMMY SANGSTER AT THE NATIONAL FILM THEATRE, LONDON
By John Exshaw –
The first time I met Jimmy Sangster, I remarked that he must
have endured a lot of leg-pulling over his surname during his days as Hammer’s
top scriptwriter. Jimmy looked up from his lunch, somewhat startled. “No,” he
said. “Why should that have happened?” “Well,” I replied, feeling I was stating
the obvious, “Sang is the French for blood, and you were writing all
these blood-soaked horror movies . . . Surely someone must’ve made a joke of
it?” Jimmy looked at me like I was the third loony from the left in some Hammer
opus before replying with finality: “No, no one’s ever said that before.”
And, sad to report, no one mentioned it either at the
National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank on Tuesday 15 April, when Sangster
was guest of honour at an evening devoted to his long and remarkable career.
Billed as “Taste of Fear + Jimmy Sangster in Coversation”, the well-attended
event was hosted by Marcus Hearn, co-author of ‘The Hammer Story: The
Authorised History of Hammer Films’, and began with a screening of Sangster’s
first film as scriptwriter for Hammer, the 1955 short, ‘A Man on the Beach’,
directed by Joseph Losey and starring Donald Wolfit, Michael Medwin, and (of
course) Michael Ripper.
Jimmy Sangster (left) with interviewer Marcus Hearn at the National Film Theatre in London
Based on a story by Victor Canning, it opens with a rather
Ealingesque casino robbery, in which Medwin does his best Alec Guinness
impersonation as a cross-dressing stick-up artist named Maxie. After deciding
that his partner (Ripper) is now surplus to requirements, Maxie manages to
shove both him and their car over a cliff, though not before sustaining a
gunshot wound himself. Having passed out on the beach, Maxie stumbles across a
gloomy beachcomber’s hut where he encounters a former doctor named Carter
(Wolfit). Self-obsessed and desperate, Maxie determines to kill Carter the next
morning in order to cover his tracks, but finds that the doctor has removed the
bullets from his gun during the night. Soon after, Maxie is apprehended by the
local gendarme on a routine visit. Only then does he learn what he was
too impatient to see before: that Carter is blind and therefore could not have
An interesting curiosity, ‘A Man on the Beach’ set the scene
nicely for one of Sangster’s personal favourites, the 1961 chiller, ‘Taste of
Fear’ (known in the U.S. as ‘Scream of Fear’), directed by Seth Holt and
starring Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd, and, as a suitably
sepulchrous red herring, none other than Christopher Lee. Speaking later on,
Sangster recalled, “I’d written five or six Gothics, and one week I remember I
went to see ‘Psycho’ and ‘Les Diaboliques’ . . . And they scared the shit out
of me, they really did! And I thought, hey, I can do that. So I went off and
wrote ‘Taste of Fear’.”
Sangster, as he is happy to admit, has always preferred his
psychological thrillers (which include such early-Sixties’ titles as ‘Maniac’,
‘Paranoiac’, ‘Nightmare’, and ‘Hysteria’) to the “Gothics” for which he is best
known, although it’s an enthusiasm rarely shared by Hammer aficionados, who
tend to consider the convoluted, twist-in-the-tail plots and black-and-white
photography, however accomplished, to be rather less satisfying than the more
visceral, glorious Technicolor, blood-and-thunder approach which Sangster helped
to pioneer and which became synonymous with the company’s name following the
release of ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ in 1957.
WE CONTINUE OUR SERIES OF REPORTS FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT JOHN
EXSHAW'S DIARY FROM THE RECENTLY CONCLUDED VENICE INTERNATIONAL FILM
Having crawled into bed at 5:30 a.m., the prospect of being
back on the Lido for the 8:30 a.m. screening of Takashi Miike’s ‘Sukiyaki
Western Django’ rather lacked appeal, to put it mildly, so I resigned myself to
the usual routine of four litres of espresso and a stint in the press room
prior to collapsing into a seat for the 4:30 p.m. showing of Franco Giraldi’s
‘Sugar Colt’ (1966). It came as a surprise to find Giraldi himself in
attendance, having heard earlier in the week that he “wasn’t well” – a rather
ominous phrase when applied to a man in his mid-seventies (and one that was
also used to describe Sergio Sollima’s conditionwhen he was unable to attend ‘The Big
Gundown’). But there he was, sporting a crutch and a slight hobble, but
otherwise in fine fettle.
The film’s star, Hunt Powers (real name, Jack Betts – any
relation to Tom Betts of ‘Westerns… all’italiana!’ magazine, one idly wonders?)
had already told how he landed the part of Sugar Colt at the second Spaghetti
Western Round Table, but that didn’t stop him telling it again. Here’s how it
goes: “I was on my home, in California, when I decided to call my agent. He
told me he’d gotten a call from Franco Giraldi about the leading role in a film
called ‘Sugar Colt’ Do you ride a horse? he asked. For years, I told him. I’m a
superb equestrian. Do you shoot? Indeed I do, and have in fact won many
sharpshooting contests. Can you be in Rome in two weeks? You bet your ass I
can! I then called John Wayne and told him I needed to learn how to ride and
shoot in two weeks. Duke told me to come out to his ranch, and his head
wrangler taught me everything he could. I’ve never told Franco that story till
now, so I guess I did all right.”
‘Sugar Colt’, whose screenwriters included Sandro Continenza
and Fernando Di Leo, proves to be a rather uneven film, part revenge Western
and part comedy, with a dash of spy film thrown in for good measure. Tom
Cooper, a former undercover agent codenamed Sugar Colt, is approached by one Pinkerton
(presumably old Allan himself) and asked to assist in solving a case in which
some 150 Union sharpshooters had disappeared in mysterious circumstances at the
end of the Civil War. Cooper, now the dandifyied owner of a ladies’ shooting
academy, refuses, but changes his mind almost immediately when Pinkerton is
gunned down in the street. Disguising himself as a doctor, Sugar Colt travels
to Snake Valley to crack the case . . .
Japanese poster for "Sugar Colt"
If the script of ‘Sugar Colt’ proves to be a bit wobbly, the
same cannot be said of Franco Giraldi’s direction, which is remarkably assured,
with good, clean composition and impressive use of landscape throughout. Powers
plays his part well enough, though his uncanny and extremely unfortunate
resemblance to pop star Robbie Williams, right down to the same smarmy
expressions and narcissistic posing, is highly distracting. Not his fault,
perhaps, but is smarminess really a quality one wants in a Western hero?
Soledad Miranda, Jess Franco’s ill-fated muse, shines in her role as Josefa,
and is ably supported by Gina Rovere as her Aunt Bess. In one amusing sequence,
after Josefa has been overcome by some gas released by Sugar Colt (don’t ask),
Rovere, instead of delivering the expected slap to help her regain her senses,
cold-cocks her with a beautifully-delivered straight right to the face. Also in
the cast, glimpsed briefly as one of Cooper’s clients in the shooting academy,
is Mara Krup, well-remembered as the hotel owner’s wife who drools over No Name
in ‘For a Few Dollars More’. The remarkably annoying theme tune by Luis
Enríquez Bacalov, which usually has me reaching for the skip button on my CD
player, is thankfully underemployed. It’s also interesting to note that the
name ‘Sugar Colt’, which sounds pretty odd to English-speaking viewers, sounds
even odder when uttered by Italian-speaking actors.
Afterwards, I managed to get Giraldi’s attention for all of
two minutes. Not knowing he was going to be there, I had no sensible questions
prepared, and found myself saying something inane about his use in ‘Sugar Colt’
of Carlo Simi’s El Paso set from ‘For a Few Dollars More’. “Ah,” he said, “Very
good. You have a very sharp eye.” Which was nice of him, of course, though in
truth you’d have to be Tony Anthony’s title character in ‘Blindman’ not to spot
it. I then complimented him on his direction of ‘Sugar Colt’. “It’s not
perfect, not all,” he replied. “It is, I think, very naïve. But there are
things I like. . . . I have not seen it for years.” He agreed that Miranda was
good, adding “but she died very young.” And that was the end of another
sensational, in-depth interview.
WE CONTINUE OUR SERIES OF REPORTS FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT JOHN
EXSHAW'S DIARY FROM THE RECENTLY CONCLUDED VENICE INTERNATIONAL FILM
“Quentin Tarantino is under sedatives,” the spokesman
announced, before starting to shuffle furiously through a sheaf of papers.
Well, of course he is, I thought. In a flash, the whole story unfolded before
my eyes: Tarantino had arrived in Venice
and discovered that the organisers of the international event to which he’d
lent his name were showing crappy digital prints of some of his favorite
movies. Naturally enough, he’d completely flipped out and strangled them both
with a length of 35mm film he keeps for just such a purpose. He’d eventually
been restrained and was now “under sedatives” in the newly-named Sergio Leone
Suite of the Excelsior Hotel, as his lawyers prepared an unanswerable defense
of justifiable homicide . . .
It was all so clear. And Cinema Retro was going to
get the cinematic scoop of the century! Hot damn in a handcart! I could already
see myself signing off my reports with Danny De Vito’s lines from ‘L.A.
Confidential’: “Remember, dear readers, you heard it here first – off the
record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.” And then, why not? the book deal,
serialisation rights, movie options . . . Larry King, here I come! Clear the
sofa, Oprah! But what to call it? ‘Death in Venice’? No, no, no . . . ‘Death by
Celluloid’? Hmm, yeah, maybe . . .“. .
. blahdy- blah . . . sends his regrets . . . blah blah blah . . .”What the hell is that man talking about?
Can’t he see I’m creating here? And why’s he waving that piece of paper?
“. . . letter . . . full text . . .” Reluctantly, I hauled myself off Oprah’s
couch and returned to Planet Earth. And this is what I heard:
“To Marco Müller and all my friends,
I will not be able to join you at this festival as I injured
I am heartbroken not to be able to watch and enjoy all the
different Spaghetti Westerns we’ve programmed for the festival. Great movies
like The Bounty Killer, El Desperado, Navajo Joe, Tepepa.
It is my wish that when this festival is over the director Sergio Corbucci will
take the place he deserves beside Leone and with John Ford, Howard Hawks and
Anthony Mann as one of the greatest Western directors of all time.
So everyone drink good wine, eat good food, ride the waters
and enjoy the magic of cinema.
WE CONTINUE OUR SERIES OF REPORTS FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT JOHN EXSHAW'S DIARY FROM THE RECENTLY CONCLUDED VENICE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.
Started the day by calling in on Giancarlo Santi at his
hotel, having arranged an interview with him last night. He was just finishing
his breakfast, but otherwise seemed quite ready to hit the trail and “git them
dogies rolling”. Politeness required that I kept my generally low opinion of
‘The Grand Duel’ to myself – though to be fair to Santi, I never got the
impression that he himself regards it as an imperishable classic. In any case,
I was much more interested in hearing him talk about his time as assistant
director to Sergio Leone on ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, ‘Once Upon a Time
in the West’ and ‘Giù la testa’ (‘A Fistful of Dynamite’, ‘Duck, You Sucker’).
Santi speaks pretty good English, but as the interview progressed, he tended to
lapse into Italian with increasing frequency. When he apologized for this, I
suggested that he continue in Italian, saying I could always get the tape
translated at a later date.
The best-known story involving Santi concerns his aborted
direction of ‘Giù la testa’, caused by Rod Steiger’s refusal to work with
anyone other than Leone. After about three days, so the story goes, Steiger
refused to continue under Santi’s direction, responding to Leone’s assurances
that Santi was perfectly capable by saying, okay, I’ll send along my stand-in,
he’s perfectly capable too. And so, reluctantly, Leone demoted Santi and
assumed the directorial burden himself . . .
Santi, however, remembers things rather differently. At the
end of filming ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, he recalls, Leone turned to him,
removed his viewfinder and placed it around Santi’s neck, telling him, “You
will direct the next film.” Santi, who doesn’t appear to have harboured any
great desire to be a director, thought no more about it. Some two years later,
when Santi was working in Africaas
assistant director on Glauber Rocha’s ‘The Lion Has Seven Heads’, Leone,
unbeknownst to him, took out a full-page ad. in Variety announcing ‘Giù
la testa’, “to be directed by Giancarlo Santi”. Leone was immediately bombarded
with telegrams from both Steiger’s and James Coburn’s agents: their clients had
accepted the film on the understanding that it was to be “Directed by Sergio
Leone”, and they weren’t going to settle for the crown prince in place of the
king. When Santi did join the film as assistant director, it was the first he’d
heard of all this rumpus, and he categorically denies that he shot any
principle scenes, or any scenes which would not fall within the usual remit of the
We continued talking about his work with Leone, but such
stories as emerged will have to wait for another time. Before I left, he
whipped out a digital print of Lee Van Cleef and himself on the set of ‘The
Grand Duel’ and proceeded to inscribe it to me. Remembering Lee and Dave’s
injunction to “spread the good word”, I presented him with a back issue of Cinema
Retro, shook hands and oiled off.
Our Man Exshaw has returned home from the city of mystery and intrigue, having covered one of the world's most important film festivals. John's columns have attracted the greatest number of readers our site has ever had, so we're happy to continue his diaries reflecting on the events that took place at the Venice International Film Festival's tribute to Italian Westerns. We'll be presenting the remaining segments of John's daily diary of events that took place at the festival. Please note that the diary entries were written contemporaneously with the on-going events.
Monday got off to a similar start to Sunday, with the need
to file copy putting paid to a second and last chance to catch the new Jesse
James movie. Then, at 3:30 p.m., I filed into the press conference hall for a
gabfest entitled “Eastern Western: The Impact of the Spaghetti Western in Asia
and America”. The panel for this event comprised of Marco Giusti, Richard
Corliss (Time), Jim Hoberman (The Village Voice), and Sadao
Yamane (or Yamane Sadao, if you prefer the Japanese surname-first rendering), a
venerable cinema journalist and current Professor of Film Studies at Tokei
University. It was chaired by Peter Cowie, the equally venerable founder of The
International Film Guide and author of definitive studies of The Godfather
films and Apocalypse Now.
Cowie began with a mea culpa on behalf of himself and
his generation of film critics who had dismissed the Spaghetti Western as a
sacrilegious abomination in the 1960s, saying that for those raised on the
classic, formal Hollywood Western, it was simply not possible then to
appreciate the innovation and iconoclastic viewpoint of directors like Leone
and Corbucci. He ended by noting that while “Hollywood won’t back actual
Westerns, [there are] plenty of films that are derived from the Spaghetti
Western template” – a perfectly valid general point, if somewhat undercut by
the recent or forthcoming release of ‘Seraphim Falls’, ‘3:10 to Yuma’, and the
Jesse James opus.
Giusti then talked about growing up with the Italian Western
in the 1960s, and how domestic product filled a gap in the second-run cinema
schedules created by the decline in Hollywood’s output of B-Westerns by the
likes of William Witney and R.G. Springsteen.
Richard Corliss recalled his youth in Philadelphia and how
he and his friends would enjoy the three types of Italian films then on offer:
the auteur film, the “personality” film (in which they could see actors
such as Marcello Mastroianni whom they’d first encountered in auteur
films), and genre films such as pepla and Westerns. He then proposed an
hitherto overlooked contribution by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood to Western
fashion – the three-day growth of beard, which Leone used to make Eastwood look
older and more hard-bitten and which, as Corliss said, “is still very much with
us.” He also mentioned a story told by Sergio Donati, of how Eastwood began to
modulate his naturally “musical” voice after hearing the slower and more
laconic delivery of Enrico Maria Salerno, the actor who dubbed Eastwood in Italian
With (in order of appearance): Sergio Donati, Sir Christopher Frayling,
Howard Hughes, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Franco Giraldi, Enzo G.
Castellari, Sergio Martino, Ferdinando Baldi, Manolo Bolognini, Alex Cox, Franco
Nero, Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, Ennio Morricone, Alessandro
Alessandroni, Damiano Damiani, and Tomás Milian
Docurama/IFC, 2005NTSC/Region 1/56 mins.$26.95
Review by John Exshaw
Once upon a time in a film class, a lecturer was heard to
bemoan the presence in video stores of an abundance of “cheap Spaghetti
Westerns” in a tone which indicated, quite unambiguously, that he was not just
complaining about the prices. Nor, it is safe to assume, was he merely venting
his displeasure at the films’ paucity of production values. No, what was
agitating this sage of celluloid was the complete and utter lack of
authenticity inherent in Spaghetti Westerns; they were, by place of birth,
ethnicity, definition, and any other criteria one might care to apply, most
definitely not the real thing.
Spaghetti Westerns did not show a true picture of the Old
West – unlike, say, the Hopalong Cassidy films or those of Gene Autry. They
were not historically accurate – unlike, say, They Died With Their Boots On
or My Darling Clementine. They were not made by American directors –
unlike, say, Rancho Notorious or High Noon. They did not star
American actors – except when they did. They were not shot on genuine Western
locations – such as the legendary Columbia backlot. And they were cheap,
goddammit, quite unlike the big-budget, super-productions synonymous with
studios such as Republic and Monogram. Yes, folks, down with “cheap” Italian
Westerns, and hooray for Hollywood, the home of authenticity!
A need to write up my reports, combined with a lack of sleep, meant I had to pass on an 11:00 a.m. showing of ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, a film one sincerely hopes is less clumsy than its title. The former kept me occupied till , when I rode up for the ‘Spaghetti Western Round Table 1’, at which the participants were: Giuliano Gemma, Fabio Testi, Enzo Castellari, Carlo Lizzani, Tinto Brass, Sergio Salvati, Luis eEnriquez Bacalov, and Pasquale Squitieri.
Testi was asked about his 1978 film, ‘China 9, Liberty 37’, directed, depending on which sources one consults, by Monte Hellman and/or Antonio Brandt, and which featured Sam Peckinpah in the cast. Testi recalled that, “Sergio Leone was supposed to do a role, and met Peckinpah on the set . . .” Whenever Testi had any scenes with Bloody Sam, he said, Peckinpah always wanted the dialogue rewritten so that he would have the last word.
Japanese poster for "The Hills Run Red"
Lizzani spoke next, about Italian cinema in general, with occasional references to the first of two Westerns he directed, ‘The Hills Run Red’ (1966, and due to be screened tomorrow). Lizzani has often been quoted as saying he made the film only as a favour to producer Dino De Laurentiis (who told him, “We have the three Cs in common – cuore, cervelloe culo” - heart, mind and ass). In cold print, Lizzani’s comment made it seem as if he, as part of the second wave of neo-realist directors (with all that implies in terms of political engagement and intellectualism), was dismissing the film, but in person he appeared quite happy to have made Westerns and talked about them with affection and wry good humour.
Arrived back on the Lido to catch a showing of Alex Cox’s new film, ‘Searchers 2.0’, which is not part of the Spaghetti Western retrospective, but with a title like that, and knowing of Cox’s love of Italian Westerns, I figured it was something a gringo like me should see. On the way, I ran into Enzo Castellari and his son, Andrea, who, like his old man, gives the impression he probably wrestles bears before breakfast just for the hell of it. When I told them where I was going, Enzo said he’d love to see the movie and that he’d hoped to meet Cox at the festival.
At the cinema, I introduced myself to Cox as an admirer of his ‘Moviedrome’ series, which used to run on the BBC in the days when British TV stations treated films as more than disposable time-fillers. Indeed, it was Cox who presented what was, in effect, the British première of ‘Django’, which had been banned outright on its original release, as well as giving many of us our first exposure to the delirium that is Giulio Questi’s ‘Django, Kill!’. Cox and I arranged to talk later, and he and Enzo got on famously.
‘Searchers 2.0’ is a “micro-budget” road movie, shot with a digital camera which Cox made sound little more sophisticated than something you’d buy in a pharmacy, and is executive-produced by Roger Corman, who also has a cameo in the film.
Right after the main title, there appears on screen the legend, “Benito Stefanelli… morto!”, which surprised and amused Enzo, and let me know I’d made the right decision to check this out. (In the unlikely event that there is actually anyone out there who doesn’t know who Benito Stefanelli was, I should perhaps explain that he was Sergio Leone’s head stuntman, and also appeared in most of his films.)
Wednesday – Today’s proceedings started with Sergio
Sollima’s masterly ‘The Big Gundown’, with Lee Van Cleef and Tomás Milian, on
which I had to pass, having made a loose appointment to interview Sergio Donati
at yesterday’s press conference. Donati, who co-wrote ‘The Big Gundown’ with
Sollima, turned up at the screening with every intention of watching it again,
but when I explained that I would have to leave for another interview before
the movie ended, he very kindly agreed to give it a miss too, saying with a
smile, “It’s okay, I know the story.” He did, however, ask to watch the opening
credit sequence before we left. Was this an example of a screenwriter, even
forty-one years after the event, just wanting to make absolutely sure that, no,
he hadn’t been screwed out his screen credit, or just a tribute to the film’s
wonderful titles and Morricone’s great score? Quien sabe, hombre?
Anyway, we spoke for the best part of an hour, and needless
to say, it was fascinating, not least because Donati is highly intelligent,
witty, and doesn’t speak in soundbites. As it would be impossible, as well as
bad manners, to try to summarise his responses in the context of an on-line
interview, we’ll have to leave it there for now. But did you know that Jason
Robards, while working on ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, heard of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, he
proceeded to drink the bars of Almería dry, telling anyone who’d listen that he
was sick of living in a country where such things could happen, and that he
wanted out? And that the next day, Robards arrived on the set and personally
apologised to everyone present for his behaviour? Nice story, don’t you think?
Jason Robards in Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West
3:00 p.m.For the Spaghetti Western
posse, the day started with a press conference for the official launch of Spaghetti
Western: The Secret History of Italian Cinema 4, overseen by Festival
chairman, Davide Croff, and the co-curators, Marco Giusti and Manlio Gomarasca.
The guest line-up was comprised of Franco Nero, Sergio Donati, and Tonino
Valerii, with American director Eli Roth, and New York Times film critic
Elvis Mitchell, also on hand. After Manlio had described the Spaghetti Western
as, “the Italian genre which most contributed to change in worldwide cinema,”
Nero spoke with passion about the Western and its continuing importance: “No
male actor in the world doesn’t want to play in Westerns. Westerns were often
A-movies in America, but B-movies in Italy. But these B-movies paid for all the
auteur films. When I travelled to Japan and South America, in the hotel
registers, they would just write “Django” . . . So I say it is a mistake not to
make Westerns today, look at the worldwide sales of DVDs... To make Westerns
in the Seventies’ style is a good idea. Westerns are something mythical,
recalled the great Sergio Corbucci, calling him, “an under-appreciated director
in the true sense of the word, like Tonino Valerii. They really are sound
directors who get the best out of a story.” He then told his anecdote about
Corbucci’s legendary sense of fun, in which, during the filming of the title
scene of Django, Corbucci told Nero to walk past the camera, pulling his
iconic coffin, and to keep going until they had enough footage and Corbucci
shouted “Cut”. Nero duly obliged, trudging on and on through the mud, the
coffin getting heavier and heavier, wondering when on earth Corbucci would be
satisfied. Eventually, having had enough, he stopped and looked back. There was
no one in sight; Corbucci had told the crew to pack up and leave as soon as
Nero was out of earshot. . . . Corbucci, he added, ‘would arrive on the set and
ask, “How many are we going to kill today? Ten? Twenty?” . . . I really miss
after giving a quick account of how he came to make his first film, Taste
for Killing, in 1966, mainly talked about the making of A Reason to
Live, a Reason to Die, and his comments would be best read in conjunction
with the report on that film.
On Tuesday evening, the day before the Festival officially opened, there was a press screening of the newly-restored Italian print of Fistful of Dollars. While normally the best way to watch a foreign film is in the original language with subtitles, that is not the case with Leone’s movies, unless you particularly want to hear Clint Eastwood dubbed into Italian by Enrico Maria Salerno. Contrary to rumours that recently-found additional material had been restored, the print seems much the same as that released in Italy on the Ripley’s Home Video label, only with the original opening credits – which feature as an extra on the currently-available disc – cleaned and restored, so that once again Ennio Morricone is credited as ‘Leo Nichols’, and Leone as ‘Bob Robertson’. Also, the scene in which the Rojos and the Baxters shoot it out at night in the cemetery, which was previously scratched, appears to have been cleaned up. However, what we were watching lacked the clarity of a restored celluloid print, and the suspicion arose that it was the restored DVD – which Ripley's presumably intend to reissue as a Special Edition – being projected on the screen.
At 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, there was a press conference relating to this restored edition. According to the day’s guest list notification for the press, Tonino Valerii, assistant director on Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, was due to attend, but he didn’t (though he's still expected later for the screening of his A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die). This left a number of people involved in the restoration to talk on in an alarmingly technical way about the Techniscope process, four-sprocket frames, digital re-mastering of soundtrack material, etc., etc., etc. If you’ve ever sat through one of those ‘Restoring the Film’ documentaries included as DVD extras, you’ll know what I mean. The most interesting fact to emerge was that, apparently, the restoration of Per un pugno di dollari cost more than the film itself (which had a budget of about $200,000).
Monday night, watched a 1959 movie called Venezia, la luna e tu (‘Venice, the Moon and You’), in which Alberto Sordi played a gondolier who – you’ve guessed it – gets involved with two silly foreign girls. With only Tonino Delli Colli’s colour photography to recommend it, the main surprise of the film was in seeing Sordi, Nino Manfredi, and director Dino Risi – all of whom, a year or so later, became leading figures in the commedia all’italiana movement which cast a critical eye on contemporary mores in a changing Italy – caught up in such an inconsequential piece of fluff.
Tuesday morning: As there was nothing kicking off on the Lido till the evening, I caught a vaporetto over to Dorsoduro and made my way to the church of San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, which Donald Sutherland worked so hard to restore in Don’t Look Now. Obviously, whoever took over from him wasn’t killed by a red-coated, homicidal dwarf because the building looks much better than it did in the movie, the restoration having been completed by the Venice in Peril foundation – whose sign can be seen on a wall in the film – by the end of the Seventies.
San Nicolo dei Mendicoli
And so down to business . . . Last month, the Venice Film Festival announced a 32-film retrospective entitled Spaghetti Western as part of its ongoing series, The Secret History of Italian Cinema. This strand of the Festival began in 2004 with Kings of the Bs, co-curated by Quentin Tarantino, who is also named as “the godfather” (yes, that’s really what they call him in the publicity handouts) of this year’s event.
The 2004 line-up included examples of Westerns, pepla (sword-and-sandal movies), poliziesci (Seventies’ cop movies), horror, and giallo by such stalwarts of Italian popular cinema as Riccardo Freda, Vittorio Cottafavi, Antonio Margheriti, Sergio Sollima, Enzo G. Castellari, Fernando Di Leo, Umberto Lenzi, and Lucio Fulci. Surprisingly, even Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust was allowed to rear its controversial head as well. In 2005, the series was reduced in scope to accommodate a Secret History of Asian Cinema, but managed to find room for two films each, fully restored, by Mario Bava and Massimo Dallamano, as well as four biopics of Casanova. The following year provided even thinner pickings for Spaghetti fans, with only a restored print of For a Few Dollars More featuring in a line-up dominated by centennial celebrations of Rossellini, Visconti, and Mario Soldati, along with The Secret History of Russian Cinema (which must have been a lot of fun).
2 in Venice, and as the press accreditation desk wasn’t opening till the
afternoon, that left the morning free for a visit to the Libreria Solaris, the
only place in Venice for film books and DVDs (and I mean ‘only’ in both senses
of the word). Having grabbed a fistful of movies – including the Italian
releases of both HerculesHercules Unchained, which I
fervently hope are taken from better prints than the budget discs available in
the States – I moseyed on back to the hotel and then over to the Lido,
pondering awhile the relationship between Venice and the movies.
has often been likened to a living film set, a most appropriate comparison
considering the city was literally conjured into reality from nothing. And yet,
paradoxically, it’s the very unreality of the place, the sheer improbability of
it, that leaves the deepest impression on even the most fleeting of visitors.
Venice exists, but a part of your mind is always aware that it shouldn’t.
with actual film sets, some directors make better use of them than others,
while the very best contrive to make the production design an integral part of
the story rather than mere backdrop. In this regard, Venice is no exception.
of the more memorable instances of Venice as backdrop include Sean Connery,
Daniela Bianchi, and Matt Monro combining for the final sequence of From
Russia with Love (1963), as James Bond unspools a reel of compromising film
into the Grand Canal. Bond was back in Venice in 1979 for the puerile Moonraker,
in which Roger Moore struggled to maintain his dignity while driving a
gondala-cum-car through St. Mark’s Square, in addition to having a smashing
time in a fight sequence set in a Murano glass factory. And more recently, an
actor with ginger hair, inexplicably cast as 007, was involved in the
preposterously overblown CGI destruction of an entire Venetian palazzo in the
preposterously over-praised Casino Royale (2006).
wasn’t the only Napoleon to invade Venice. One hundred and seventy years after
the megalomaniac Corsican brought an end to the Venetian Republic, Robert
Vaughn took time off from playing Napoleon Solo to appear in The Venetian
Affair (1967), a tale of murky goings-on derived from a book by Helen MacInnes
and co-starring Euro-spy stalwarts Luciana Paluzzi and Elke Sommer, together
with none other than Karloff the Uncanny in one of his last roles.
by coincidence, of course, Illya Kuryakin was on hand for a fortuitous Man
from U.N.C.L.E. photo-opportunity, when David McCallum “just happened” to
be in the vicinity while filming the obscure romantic comedy, Three Bites of
the Apple, opposite Eurobabe Sylva Koscina.
Arrived in Venice, to be greeted by Terence Hill. Not in person, you understand, with brass band and Bud Spencer on trombone, but, turning on the TV in my hotel room, there was Terence, beaming blandly. . . . This seemed auspicious, not only because I’m here to cover the Spaghetti Western retrospective at this year’s Venice Film Festival, which includes two Terence Hill movies, but also because Terence is, apparently, as revealed by some remarkably tedious and unproductive research prior to this trip, Venice’s greatest gift to cinema. Indeed, it seems he is Venice’s only gift to cinema – or at any rate, the only one with any serious claim to international recognition. Which seems odd, somehow, given La Serenissima’s high profile in the film world due to the Festival, to say nothing of its appearance as a location in literally hundreds of movies, but there it is. Of course, hosting a film festival is no guarantee of cinematic progeny (vide Cannes) but Venice is . . . well, Venice—home to Marco Polo, Casanova, Goldoni, Vivaldi, Canaletto . . . and Terence Hill.
However, my initial pleasure at seeing Terence quickly evaporated on realising that what I was watching was an episode of his seemingly endless series, Don Matteo, in which Hill plays a priest, one who resolves issues with a kindly smile and a pious platitude rather than a Trinity-like series of well-placed punches. This lamentable conclusion to Hill's career apparently dates back to the success of the Trinity films, after which he was, so he says, constantly approached by mammas burdened with bawling bambini who thanked him, with tears in their eyes, for making movies suitable per tutta la famiglia. Since then, and the apparent end of his partnership with Spencer, Hill has pursued the family-values agenda so assiduously that he must be an outstanding candidate for the Michael Medved Lifetime Achievement Award for Saccharine Sentimentality. <!--[if !supportLineBreakNewLine]--> <!--[endif]-->
Who can forget his spectacular miscasting of himself, both as actor and director, in the execrable Don Camillo in 1983? (I’ve tried, but nothing seems to work.) Or his wretched turn as Lucky Luke in a series of infantile TV movies? I suppose, with hindsight, we should have been warned by the fact that St. Terence enjoyed his biggest success playing a character called Trinity, but how were we to know that he harboured ambitions to be the Pat O'Brien of his day, and that the rest of his solo career, post-My Name Is Nobody, could easily be headlined They Call Me Sanctimonious…?
As watching Don Matteo is rather like being mugged by Bing Crosby (though without the songs), I grabbed the zapper and managed to catch the final showdown of Il mucchio selvaggio, or The Wild Bunch, if you prefer. While Pike Bishop and the Gorch brothers may not sound quite right growling at each other in Italian, it didn't make much difference to Coffer and T.C., who spend most of the movie jabbering and gesticulating like a pair of Venetian fishwives anyway. Nonetheless, the legendary bullet ballet provided just the right antidote to the toe-curling banalities of Don Matteo.
And so to bed. Tomorrow, after all, is another day . . .