The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento: two different revolutions. One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant. Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation. I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.
Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film. The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films! He was the Kremlin projectionist for years: Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.
The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents. Seems a bit hokey at times. The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film. Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.
There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break. Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty. This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night. It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi. If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.
Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard. Panned at first, it is now highly rated: Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films. Why no surprise? Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.
Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti. The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento. You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film? He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class. He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan. And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.
The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.
The other day, I watched L’Innocente, Visconti’s film of 1971 based on a story by D’Annunzio. It was his last film, and certainly not up to the level of Senso. A narcissistic, decadent, fin de siecle rich guy, Giancarlo Giannini, likes to have affairs, despite being married to a woman who is nearly goddess-like in her voluptuousness, i.e., Laura Antonelli. (She, by the way, turns in a fine performance here: not what I expected from the Queen of Italian soft-core sex farces of the 1970s.)
When his wife, oppressed by her desperate situation, takes a lover, he suddenly rediscovers her attractions. Her lover dies on an African expedition, but she is pregnant with his child. Her husband, now infatuated with her, demands that she have an abortion, and she refuses, ostensibly on religious grounds (He’s an atheist and freethinker.) but really because she wants the child of her dead lover, whom she mourns secretly.
Possessed by old fashioned jealousy and self-absorption – “I’m a man sick with melancholy, and I enjoy my sickness,” he says – the husband murders the baby. He thinks that his wife has been seduced into loving him again by his vigorous and slightly kinky erotic ministrations to her, and that she will accept the death of the baby, and move on, with him. He is wrong – she sees through him and realizes that he killed the baby, and she reveals her measureless hatred of him, confessing that she only pretended to love him again to protect her baby whom she loves as she did his father.
He confesses all to his former mistress, an icy countess (Jennifer O’Neal) and says he is ready to take up with her again. She, despite her relative lack of conventional morals, and her rather cavalier way of dealing with his infanticide, says she’s no longer interested. She calls him a monster, in a nice way, of course.
Having nothing to live for now – only mere existence stands before him – our existential ‘hero’ shoots himself in the heart while the countess looks on. He wanted her to see how he stands by his principles. Ho hum…
The costumes are fantastic, and the stifling perfume of the period’s opulence, for this particular class of beings, is, of course – after all, this is Visconti – overpowering in its presentation. But the story is rather mechanical, and for me, D’Annunzio’s stories are simply a bit ridiculous.
Since I spend so much time looking at old art, I sometimes see things in films…
I guess Visconti knew Italian painting as well as I do. The painting of Jupiter taking on the form of a cloud in order to possess Io (at top, by Correggio) must have been in his mind when he filmed the scene of Giannini carefully and deliberately arousing his wife while making clear his complete (so he thought) dominance of her (below).
I only heard about Pretty Poison (1968) from the NYTimes obituary for the director, Noel Black. He spoke of it after it flopped and was pulled from the theatres, saying:
“Essentially, we saw it as a story with many comedic elements in a serious framework — a kind of black comedy or existential humor of which ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is a prototype,” he said. “We hoped people would take it on more than one level.”
Let’s just stay at one level, not sure if it’s high or low: it has one of the strangest femme fatales I have ever seen in film.
Anthony Perkins plays a disturbed parolee named Dennis Pitt, a man who deals with his discomfort with the world by spinning outrageous fantasies, this time about his being a tip-top secret agent. He spots Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) practicing with her high school marching band, goes to work on her. She seems to be a sweet, impressionable young girl, and the whole thing seems unbelievably corny and silly for a while, as he flirts with, and then woos her with his dark persona of an international man of mystery.
He has a destructive bent, and he enlists her in his plot to sabotage a local factory. Sue Ann knows her way around a wrench, big or small, pulls this one out of her blouse, and gets to work.
They are discovered by a night watchman, and Sue Ann calmly bonks him on the head with her wrench. He’s not dead, so she pushes him the water and then climbs onto him to drown him. Ride ’em, cowgirl!
She explains, it’s easier this way, isn’t it?
From here on in, we’re in Gun Crazy, Bonnie & Clyde, and yes, Dr. Strangelove territory. Those crazy kids, but which one is really crazy? Maybe Anthony Perkins isn’t so typecast here as we thought?
The blue Sunbeam roadster is a nice touch. Sue Ann’s toy.
Nothing for it but to shoot her mother, get married, and make off to Mexico, her idea. He isn’t quite up to killing Mom, so she does it while he’s sick in the toilet. Some heavy handed imagery here…
“Oh Dennis, I feel like we’re already married. What do people do when they’ve just been married, Dennis?”
“Oh, uh…I don’t think I can right now…” No problem, she says. They’ll just get rid of the body and then skedaddle.
“Dennis, I’m so hung up on you. I’ll always love you.”
“Yes, I’m quite impressed with your capacity for loving.”
Netflix classified The Lineup (1958) as a film noir, which it most certainly is not, but it’s pretty dark nonetheless, and a crackerjack crime film that I thoroughly enjoyed. Great location shots in San Francisco, an excellent high-speed chase long before McQueen did Bullit, a full rogues gallery of outlaw characters, and some great dialog: just hold on through the pretty dull first thirty minutes of police procedural until Eli Wallach, as hit-man Dancer, makes his entrance, and enjoy the ride.
It’s called The Lineup, because it’s based on a TV show that ran in the early fifties under that name. The episode with an actual lineup is quite a small part of the story. The film is an expanded treatment of one story from the series, and it’s directed by Don Siegel. One of the posters for the film says, “Too hot for TV!”
Before the credits role, we are in the action as a porter rips off a passenger’s bag, and throws it into a cab which then races away. As they say, a chase ensues, and the cabbie, after running down a cop who dies later, is hit by a lucky shot. The luggage contains a statuette stuffed with high-grade heroin, part of a shipment run by a secretive outfit headed by The Man. The Man thinks things out thoroughly, and he foists junk on unwitting overseas tourists who work as his mules without their knowledge. Once they reach the States, the gang gathers up their souvenirs in whatever way they must.
Here, the police do their work methodically, checking in with the head of customs, whom the Lt. initially blames for the cop’s death. After all, why didn’t they catch that heroin in the statue? The customs man shows a map and calmly explains that there is just too much territory, too many ships for him to handle. Pretty routine stuff, but I like the guy on the left, although I could not find his name.
Our first glimpse of the bad guys, Robert Keith as Julian, and Eli Wallach as Dancer. Julian is Dancer’s handler, coaching him on ‘delivery’ verbal and ballistic. He wants Dancer to improve his grammar so as to be able to move more easily among his victims. Their first dialog is a discussion of the subjunctive. Dancer is incredulous that anyone would say, “If I were…,” rather than “If I was…” He’s not alone, but Julian is firm with him. After the fiasco with the cabbie, The Man brought them in to clean up things.
Julian knows that Dancer is a cold-blooded psychopath, filled with hate. he says as much to another gang member. Dancer later reveals that like everyone else, he had an old man once, except that he never knew him. Is Julian his father-figure, or is there a homo-erotic attachment here..?
Sandy is “their boy,” designated driver, except that he has a liking for drink. Julian slaps his bottle to the ground, and calls him “Dipso” from then on. But Sandy has a souped-up auto, and he can drive it, fast!
The one to see is a seaman on the boat who was given a hollowed out antique horse. They are told to find him in the steamroom in the Seaman’s Club. Two guys in a locker room…wearing hats. Dancer is convinced that this whole job is going to be a sticky one because the first shipment went awry, while Julian insists, no, it’s going to be an easy one. All done by 4:30pm.
Dancer undresses to go meet the man, and Julian offers to fold his clothes. He tells him “Go easy…,” but the contact figured out that he was being used as a mule, so he asks for a few grand to make it worth his trouble. Did they think he would believe that line about just carrying some art to a friend in the city for a favor? Big mistake for them, and for him too.
…while Dancer explains the facts of life to the upstart seaman. He does it silently, shall we say. Their driver asks if he really had to kill the guy, and Julian responds, “When you live outside the law, you have to eliminate dishonesty.” Bob Dylan may have taken note.
Next up, a set of fancy cutlery with powder stowed in the ivory handles needs to be repossessed from a rich pillar of society. The butler is not comfortable with the story of an accidental mix up of shipments. Dancer tries to talk his way out using his newly acquired gift for upper-class gab, but is not successful…
Dancer does a fine job at trying, but not too hard, to pick up the woman. She has a sad story about hoping that her divorced husband would have the decency to meet them at the dock to see his little girl, but no dice. He’s lonely too… He’s pretty convincing. Good enough to get her to an accept an offer of a drive with his friends to her hotel so she doesn’t have to bother with all those packages.
Once in the room, when mom leaves for a moment, they go for the doll, not the kind you carry around all the time. The stuff isn’t there, and under threat of death for her mom, the kid reveals that she found the powder and used it to freshen up the doll’s face! “That’s the most expensive face powder you could have used, kid.”
But he’s not about to let the enraged Dancer finish the conversation by shooting the two females, although that’s what Dancer is set to do. Interesting logic here, and strangely compelling: The Man is going to be mightily upset at getting a short shipment, and will likely conclude that Dancer and Julian did a little business of their own on the side. That will not be good for the duo, who will be dead in short order, so Julian concludes that they must force the ladies to go with them, to meet The Man, so that he will see that their explanation, which would be hard to believe, don’t ya’ think, is for real. It’s their only chance.
So they all drive to the coast, to Sutro’s Maritime Museum, all that’s left of the legendary Sutro’s Baths, an early 20th century amusement center, and another great SF location. Julian waits in the car with the ladies while Dancer goes in to meet The Man. He is repelled by their weakness, and explains “that is why there are so few women in the crime world. You just don’t understand the criminal’s need for violence.” He’s very thoughtful…
After watching Visconti’s film, Senso (1954), I just had to read the original story (1882) by Camillo Boito. (It seems there is only one translation.) Boito was a major figure in the development of modern architectural restoration practice, as well as the designer of several buildings, and his brother was a major figure in opera, being Verdi’s librettist for twenty years. From Wikipedia we learn that
The word “senso” is Italian for “sense,” “feeling,” or “sentiment.” The title refers to the delight Livia experiences while reflecting on her affair with a handsome lieutenant. The novella is typical of Scapigliatura literature…
“Scapigliatura” is Italian for “unkempt” or “disheveled,” and it was a major literary movement, heavily influenced by German Romanticism, Poe, Baudelaire, and the French Decadents. In Boito’s stories that I have read so far, the macabre and grotesque, mixed with madly passionate attachments seems the norm.
Senso, however, is the tale of a cold, thoroughly narcissistic young woman who starts a torrid love affair shortly after her marriage to a boring older gentleman. She is Venetian, and that city, as well as much of northern Italy, is under the rule of the Austrian Empire. The story takes place near the end of the Risorgimento (Resurgence), that was the Italian movement to expel the foreign rulers and unite as one modern nation. The politics of the era, however, are hardly relevant to the story, although they are central to Visconti’s adaptation of it.
In fact, nothing is very relevant to Countess Livia, except for her own self-regard, and the longing and admiration she inspires in others. When she is jilted by her lover, what really stings is:
That blonde minx brazenly boasts of being more beautiful than me, and (this was the supreme insult that really rankled) he himself proclaims her more beautiful!
In the film, Alida Valli portrays a mature woman, but Boito’s character is barely past twenty, already thoroughly corrupt. She revels in the cowardice, dishonesty, and selfishness of her lover, who is an Austrian officer – it seems to increase his erotic charge:
Perfect virtue would have seemed dull and worthless compared with his vices. To me, his infidelity, dishonesty, wantonness and lack of restraint constituted a mysterious but powerful strength to which I was happy, and proud, to enslave myself. The more depraved his heart appeared, the more wonderfully handsome his body.
She does have reservations once in a while: his unwillingness to get his uniform wet to save a boy who has fallen into a canal strikes her as a bit much.
The story is told through the device of Livia re-reading her diary years after the affair has ended, before she intends to burn it. Although now middle-aged, she still thrills to the story as when she was young, and the sensuality is quite graphic. Here she recounts finding her lover lodging with a local prostitute, leading to the last straw in their relationship. I love the bit about tickling her armpit.
I could already feel the arms of my lover – the man for whom I would unhesitatingly have given everything I owned, including my life – crushing me to his broad chest. I could feel his teeth biting into my skin, and I was overwhelmed in anticipation with ineffable bliss. I felt weak with relief, and had to sit down on a chair in the hall. Hearing and seeing as if in a deep dream, I had lost all sense of reality. But someone nearby was laughing and laughing: it was a woman’s laughter, shrill, coarse and boisterous, and it gradually roused me. I listened, rising from my seat, and, holding my breath, approached a door that stood wide open, through which I could see into a huge, brightly lit room. I was standing in shadow, out of sight. Oh, why did God not strike me blind at that moment? There was a table with the remains of a meal on it. Beyond the table was a big green sofa: there lay Remigio, playfully tickling a girl’s armpit. She was hooting and shrieking with laughter, wriggling and writhing…
Remigio didn’t know he had met his match for amorality. He avoided combat by bribing some doctors to give him a medical deferment using money given him by Livia. (In the film, the money was intended to support the Risorgimento troops, making her an adulterer and a traitor.) The Countess has a letter from Remegio in which he thanks her for the cash, and details to her his current pleasant arrangements, hoping to see her soon of course. She shows the letter to the local Austrian commander, telling him she wishes to be a “loyal citizen”. No, she’s not German, but her family was always on good terms with the rulers, and in fact, her husband is rather wary of the Italian nationalists.
The commander reads the letter and understands the situation instantly: a jilted lover wishes to revenge herself by having the man shot for desertion. “Despicable!” he tells her, but she replies, “Do your duty!” He does, and Remigio is arrested: Livia receives an invitation to the execution, which, of course, she attends:
What happened next, I do not know. Something was read out, I think. Then there was a deafening noise and I saw the dark young man [one of the doctors] fall to the ground, and in the same instant I noticed that Remigio was stripped to the waist, and I was blinded by those arms, shoulders, neck, and limbs that I had so loved. Into my mind flashed a picture of my lover, full of ardour and joy, when he held me for the first time in his steely embrace, in Venice at the Sirena. I was startled by a second burst of sound. On his chest that still quivered, whiter than marble, a blonde woman had thrown herself, and was spattered with spurting blood. At the sight of that shameless hussy all my anger and resentment returned to me, and with them came dignity and strength. I had acted within my rights, and I turned to leave, serene in the self-respect that came from having fulfilled a difficult duty.
There’s a fatal woman for you! But in Visconti’s telling, she is driven mad by her passion, and in the end, wanders the streets of occupied Verona shouting the name of her lover.
Visconti’s Senso is a luxuriant depiction of the society, mostly its upper crust, a world that is changing fast and so to crumble – a favorite topic of his by his own admission. Farley Granger plays the lover, now called Franz, and seems appropriately vulgar and creepy under his beautiful uniform. Here he meets Livia, and admires the view…of the opera stage.
Here, Visconti cleverly represents the past, the present, and the decay of the ruling class society he depicts in the film.
Things move pretty quickly, Franz and Livia become lovers, despite Livia’s misgivings. Her cinema incarnation is tortured by her concerns about her reputation and propriety (unlike her literary version), but she always gives into passion.
Long vista shots, often involving doors within doors, are a frequent image in the film. In the one below, Livia is nearly lost in the palatial architecture, trapped in rooms within rooms, deceits within deceits…
A tense moment when she fears Franz will be discovered in his hiding place in the granary:
The shots of Venice are gloomy and magnificent!
Even the countryside provides no spiritual solace for Countess Livia.
Visconti was legendary for his preoccupation with ‘realism’ as he thought of it. The decor is lush, each object reinforcing the evocation of the time and place. Yet, the entire film has a very “stagey” appearance, deliberately so: we are clued-in to this because it all begins at an opera performance! Even the military operations, unromantic and confusing, like the opening scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal, look like faithful reproductions of artists’ drawings and paintings of the events, works which Visconti studied carefully.
The costumes and sets are magnificent – veils are a frequent element in their erotic encounters. Visconti related how as a child, his mother always wore them, lifting them to kiss him goodnight in his bedroom. (Visconti and Granger were both gay men in the 1950s, long before it was ‘acceptable’, though Visconti was open about it. I suppose you could write an entire analysis of the film from that angle.)
The stunning beauty, Marcella Mariani, only 18 or 19 years old, plays the prostitute who drives Livia around the bend. (Nice armpits!) She had won the Miss Italy pageant, and was breaking into acting, but died in a plane crash after the film was completed.
The lovers in happy times, and at the end of it all.
Another installment in my highlighting of engineers as characters in cinema:
Phantom Lady (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak, doesn’t seem to be available anywhere but Youtube, so there I watched it, fortunately, on a large screen. The image above shows the phantom lady with the male lead, Alan Curtis as Scott Henderson. He’s just been dumped by his rich wife, who was also carrying on with his best friend.
His wife is found murdered, and Scott is fingered for the crime. He is remarkably passive about it all, but he is saved by his chipper secretary, “Kansas”, played by Ella Raines. (I read her voice was dubbed – couldn’t she do Kansas?) The scene where he throws in the towel after losing his appeal is pure Expressionism.
As noted, Kansas is of stronger stuff, and she tracks down everyone associated with the events of the fatal night, eventually finding the killer in a scene that surely inspired the finale of Jagged Edge many years later. Would you mess with Kansas? She has a remarkable clean, strong look to her.
The reliable Elisha Cook, Jr. came down from his Sierra hideaway to do his bit in the film as a hop-head drummer with the hots for Kansas, all tarted up to gain his confidence. Her legs incite his drumming to an orgasmic crescendo, but she keeps her cool.
Scott Henderson is a civil engineer, with dreams of building cities, dreams that excite the love and admiration of Kansas. (He’s too dull to notice her crush on him.) He wants playgrounds and sunlight everywhere. There we have the civil engineer as hero motif, still with some life in it in the 1940s.
Scott’s nemesis and friend, played by Franchot Tone, is an artist, an artist a bit too preoccupied with the power of his hands to create…and destroy. In a moment of candor, he derides the ambitions of his friend as paltry concerns with sewers and pipes, and whatnot.
Engineer as nebbish: a far cry from the protagonist of transatlantic tunnel.