Sunday, June 20, 2010

Umberto Lenzi Responds

I had a chance today of asking by-now legendary director Umberto Lenzi a few questions about his early career in making adventure, pirate and peplum films. This is an area of Italian film history that needs more attention and research. These films traveled throughout the world and were seen by millions, and are remembered by many with fondness. While we, euro-film fans, generally talk about Italy's gothic horrors, spaghetti westerns and gialli, it was these adventure and historical romances that were the beginning of Italy's domination of film product available to many countries, including the United States.

I was interested in whether Lenzi initiated the production of these type of films, which for him (as director) started with QUEEN OF THE SEAS (1961), and he answered that as a young director at the time, he could not choose the projects he would be involved in. Regarding Emilio Salgari, the author of the Sandokan novels and other Far East adventure tales like LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE, yes, in his childhood he was a fan of Salgari's books.

Umberto Lenzi worked with three recognized peplum actors during this period--Steve Reeves, Richard Harrison and Alan Steel (Sergio Ciani)--so I asked for a comparison, and Lenzi responded that only Harrison was a good actor.

Lenzi also added that he had many adventures shooting these Salgari films in the swamps of Celyon and in Singapore and Malaysia, but the worst experiences were with leeches and the terrible heat of those locations.

Finally, I asked, do these films hold a special warmth in his heart after so many years:

"In my heart I have a special warm place only for the actresses."

Molte grazie, Umberto, for your time and all the entertaining films you have made in your career!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

SANDOK - review

The second I saw that this film was in scope presentation and that the colors were fine, I smiled my considerable satisfaction. I'd been expecting the aspect ratio of Mya's newest DVD release to be strangled to a 1.85:1, but not so, thankfully. SANDOK--original title LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE (THE MOUNTAIN OF LIGHT), which I'll use in this review--is not the first NTSC DVD release of a film based on the work of Emilio Salgari (the silent film CABIRIA has that honor), but it's a very welcome introduction to the niche genre of family-friendly jungle adventures in the euro cinema of the 1960s.

Emilio Salgari (1862-1911). For a while, I've been fascinated by the Italian films based on the works of Salgari, an Italian author who is unknown in the United States, but an institution in Italy and many other parts of the world. Salgari's most famous romances take place in the Far East, particularly Malaysia. Euro-film fans would recognize a few of the movies based on his novels, in particular the two SANDOKAN films starring Steve Reeves and both directed by Umberto Lenzi, who also helmed the 1965 LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE. Lenzi, along with director Luigi Capuano, represented the Salgari film during the 60s, with Capuano employing Ray Danton and Guy Madison in major roles, while Lenzi, or his producers, chose former peplum actors Reeves and Richard Harrison.

Last year I read Salgari's MYSTERY OF THE BLACK JUNGLE in the commendable though slightly abridged/censored English translation by Nico Lorenzutti. What struck me most about that Salgari novel is that the hero had a wavering moral compass and did not hold back expressing his fears.

LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE also has a hero whose moral compass is dictated by circumstances and self-interest, though his fear factor is almost zero. Richard Harrison plays Alan Foster, a care-free gambler/traveler/thief/scoundrel who loses all his money in a game with the powerful Rajah Sindar. Owing the Rajah more money than he can ever hope to acquire, he must pay back the debt or face certain death. The Rajah informs him of one possibility of payment: acquiring the heavily protected "Mountain of Light," a fabulous diamond that holds significant religious value, as well as unheard of monetary worth. The debt will be dismissed if Foster gets the diamond for the Rajah. Foster escapes from the Rajah's palace, where he was imprisoned and, seduced by the wealth the jewel represents, proceeds on a journey to try to steal the diamond for himself. Along the way he meets up with Sitama, a faking fakir, played by dance choreographer and actor Wilbert Bradley. (Bradley is splendid in this film.) The two team up to acquire this coveted jewel that can bring incredible riches to its owner and guarantee a life of pleasure and indolence.

The witty interplay between Foster and Sitama, the balancing roles of Western anti-hero and a colorful member of the indigenous lower-class, reminded me much of "Blondie" and Tuco from THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. And this would make sense as Sergio Leone and his writing crew would have been Salgari fans in their youth. Any in-depth analysis of the spaghetti western will certainly have to address the influence that Salgari's works had on Italian filmmakers like Leone.

There is a love interest that evolves later in the film, and this is the film's weakest element, as it's one of those affairs that only is real in cinema: enduring love based on a few moments of meeting.

The film proceeds at a relaxed, even pace, not encumbered by the need to rush things (a sin of much filmmaking these days), until the near end, when it winds up too quickly, so much so that the viewer may want to rewatch the last ten minutes or so. An amusing send-off alerts us to a commentary on colonialism that comes from left field, leaving one thinking for a moment if Salgari's novel may had more substance that just being a simple adventure tale.

LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE is a splendid adventure tale, the kind young audiences in the 1960s would have loved on Saturday matinees or TV showings, and that older audiences would have sat through with appreciation, whether they were viewing the film in New York or Bombay. Exotic family entertainment, much distanced from the giallo, cannibal and horror films that Lenzi would be involved with later in his career, and a sumptuous set-design and on-location presentation wonderfully showcased by the cinematography of Angelo Lotti and Lenzi's crisp direction.

With Sandokan being Saligari's most famous chartcer, Mya decided to retitle LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE as SANDOK. But there is no "Sandok" in the film and the film has no relation to the character Sandokan. Unfortunately, there is no English audio track present (there must be one in existence, as the film was released in an English version under the titles JUNGLE ADVENTURER and TEMPLE OF A THOUSAND LIGHTS). The English subtitles are generally fine, with some occasional grammatical pitfalls. Colors are quite good, and, as noted, the aspect ratio is correct.

LA MONTAGNA DI LUCE opens up American viewers to an important phase of Italian B film history and Salgari's romances. Hopefully Mya will follow up this Salgari adventure with more Salgaris, perhaps the original Sandokan films from Lenzi--SANDOKAN, LA TIGRE DI MOMPRACEM (SANDOKAN THE GREAT) and I PIRATI DELLA MALESIA (SANDOKAN: PIRATE OF MALAYSIA). If not, then other adventure romances from the Italian cinema of the 1960s will certainly be appreciated by euro-cult enthusiasts.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sandokan Fever!

I'm currently writing a review of Mya's newest DVD, SANDOK, a film based on a novel by Emilio Salgari, and felt motivated to put on this blog one of my favorite YouTube clips: a sing-along of the Sandokan song, written by the De Angelis brothers for the mega-hit SANDOKAN TV series from Italy. The Sandokan character was Salgari's most known creation. (Sandokan, btw, has nothing to do with the SANDOK film; the only connection is Salgari).

TV's Sandokan, Kabir Bedi, is the surprised and moved actor during this clip.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Coming in September 2010

THE GIRL FROM CORTINA is the 1994 LA RAGAZZA DI CORTINA, a Sergio Martino production with brother Luciano scripting and Maurizio Vanni directing. A late entry in the giallo genre, it appears.


RED HOT ZORRO is the 1972 French/Belgium film LES AVENTURES GALANTES DE ZORRO. Jean-Michel Dhermay stars as the legendary Spanish "fox," with Gilbert Roussel directing. But wait... The underpinning of the film is actually THE THREE SWORDS OF ZORRO, with the Dhermay scenes being bawdy inserts of Zorro chasing women and having sex. A Spanish-Italian co-production, THE THREE SWORDS OF ZORRO (1963) starred Guy Stockwell as the masked avenger. Ricardo Blasco directing. (Hat-tip to Pieter Boven of 10,000 Bullets.)

One assumes that Mya's release will be taken from a French DVD released in 2003. That release was not English friendly, so expect English subs with this one.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Call for the NTSC DVD release of INHIBITION

If I were to select a short list of films that best represent euro-cult, Paolo Poeti's INHIBITION would be one of the primary films on such a list.

One of euro-cult's most memorable faces, Ivan Rassimov, plays Peter Smart, who arrives in Morocco in cowboy hat and boots, American jeans, a supply of cigarillos, and a cool laconic attitude. His only baggage seems to be a suit and dress shoes, which he carries over his shoulder in a suit-carrier, as if it were a saddle. Smart is an identifiable character from the euro-cult pantheon who has to live by his wits and whatever particular skill he has that sets him above others. For Smart, it isn't a swift gun as his Western predecessors may have had, but acute gambling skill.

Claudine Beccarie plays Carol Levis, a rich, obnoxious widow, who suffered sexual indignities at the hands of her sadistic husband. Primed to give back the hate she received, Carol now cruelly lords over her servants and her young female companion and sex toy, Anna, played by Ilona Staller (future porn star name: Cicciolina). Carol's world is cold and brutal, though comforted by wealth and luxury and yes-men and yes-women. When Peter Smart enters her world, a challenge erupts. Who will win this battle--Carol or Peter? And what lessons will be learned, if any?

There's an awkward disparity in Beccarie's face. Some would consider her unattractive, but she's just right for this film and its need for a bitchy European femme. Beccarie had a provocative film career, starting off in 1972 in porn shorts. Well into her porn career, she consented to do the self-revealing EXHIBITION, an art-house film that managed to get shown in Lincoln Center and reviewed in Time Magazine. Time's critic, J.C., wrote:

She is a woman of principle. That is, Claudine Beccarie disdains foul language and absolutely draws the line at performing sex acts with animals or film producers.

She will carry on, either solo or in various combinations, almost any other amorous activity, provided it is being filmed by professionals and the price is right. She refuses, however, to discuss her politics on camera. Too personal Exhibition, a French documentary about Claudine's life, loves and heavy thoughts, has certain pretenses at social and psychological significance. The heroine may be observed, shedding tears in closeup, as she tells how she was raped by an uncle when she was only 15. This assault precipitated a descent into prostitution and an unfortunate marriage in which her soldier husband insisted on having a child against his wife's express wishes. "He tied me down to the bed and everything," she reveals. All of this occurred before Claudine's ascent to stardom in a series of quickies produced by France's newly burgeoning porno industry.

The selling of INHIBITION played upon Beccarie's notoriety (as is obvious in the title take-off on the EXHIBITION film). My guessing game is that it was with INHIBITION that Beccarie wished to distance herself from her porn past, which may be why, according to an entry on the IMDB, she held a protest fast in front of the French theater that showed the film with added X-rated inserts. Beccarie never made it into A films, but instead found probably unwelcome employment in low-brow exploitation R-rated films, like FRAULEIN KITTY and HELLTRAIN.

As with any emblematic euro-cult film, what makes INHIBITION work is the entirety. The actors, the foreign setting, the direction, and, importantly, the music. The soundtrack by Guido and Marizio De Angelis is wonderfully hip and sexy, and so euro-1970s that it's a crime it hasn't yet been released on an authoritative CD.

There are frequent scenes in INHIBITION where Poeti's fluid direction, the musical score and the editing merge into some of the best moments I've seen in euro-cult. The entire long credit sequence at the beginning is a superb testament to everything working with easy flow and what appears to be easy artistry. I must have replayed these first ten minutes or so a hundred times, and those moments still manage to hold the same transfixing and exhilarating power as when I first saw them.

Several years ago, INHIBITION was released by NoShame in a PAL-format set in an uncensored edition that gave previous viewers delightful moments never before seen, including a genuinely hot masturbation scene with Beccarie that sizzles with the lonely meaning of, and physical need for, self-gratification. The film was presented in Italian audio only, but an English audio track exists. (INHIBITION was shown on US cable TV and also received a video release in the States.) Seeing as it was a NoShame release, it must be more accessible for Mya to put in on their schedule--one hopes.

The 1970s was a time when international adventure of embracing sex and experiences in foreign, more exotic countries still remained viable. Terrorism and kidnappings, and worse, of Westerners were not threats, and globalism and the internet had not yet shed their blinding light in the more mysterious corners of the world. INHIBITION is now a languid memory of a time that was, a precious memory that makes the film a hallmark of euro-cult cinema.