Pollack Paranoia

January 31, 2012

Three Days of the Condor (1975) is a conspiracy thriller by Sydney Pollack about a renegade CIA section.  There were a lot of movies then about that sort of thing:  Watergate; JFK’s assassination; Vietnam – any nutty theory seemed to have some traction.  Unlike The Parallax View of 1974 by Pakula, which is darker and takes itself much, much more seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed this film, while I found the Pakula number predictable and pretentious.  I guess I like Redford more than Beatty too.  (I still want to know how they filmed that scene on the Seattle Space Needle at the start of Parallax though!)

Redford plays Joe Turner, a CIA researcher who returns from a lunchtime errand with the office’s sandwiches to find everyone murdered.  Why would  anyone rub out a bunch of nerdy intelligence analysts?  He may be an egghead bookworm, but he’s also Redford, so he can fight and think on his feet like James Bond:  not quite believable.

He forces Cathy (Faye Dunaway) to shelter him, she falls for him, of course, and they sleep together.  The next day, she’s feeling a bit skittish.  He tells her, “You don’t have to help me.”  She replies, “Oh no, you can count on me, the old spy fucker…”  He’s annoyed.  A funny bit; part of what makes this thriller a little quirky.

The film is shot in New York City, and it’s a real treat to see the locations.  It’s NYC in the 70s, the NYC I remember, even when I’m walking around the spic-and-span streets of today near Central Park – The NYC of humungus cars lumbering down potholed streets, garbage on the sidewalk, and grime.  Several of the shots of CIA headquarters in NYC are in the World Trade Center, a deliciously sick irony, given the fate of those structures and the CIA ineptitude that helped bring it on.  Here, the Hoboken train station take on a noir/Casablanca atmosphere as Turner walks away from Cathy, maybe to his death.

Cliff Robertson (sporting a massive, windblown rug) plays Higgins, the CIA guy trying to get Turner:  is he on Joe’s side, or does he put The Company first?  Here he stares at a primitive version of Google Maps trying to locate Joe from a phone call, but Joe was too clever to be tracked.

Joe finds the CIA guy who rubbed out his friends so that a secret rogue CIA plan to invade the Middle East wouldn’t be uncovered.  Turner realizes it was all about oil.  Sounds familiar.  The 1973 oil crisis was a recent memory.

John Houseman is the old CIA hand who craves “the clarity” of yesteryear.  Max von Sydow is  Joubert the hired murderer who has found clarity in “the precision” of his work.  He doesn’t have to worry about which side pays.  He has found peace.  He and Joe have a little man to man outside of the renegade’s house.  Joe seems cool with the fact that Mr. Death (yep, Max has a lot of experience with The Grim Reaper) knocked off his colleagues:  he’s a bit overwhelmed by it all, and asks for a lift to the train station.  This was another of the enjoyable, unpredictable elements in this film.

Joe is not quite through with The Company.  He meets Higgins again, who tries to justify the whole dirty business, although, of course, that renegade went too far.  They have a little debate about democratic accountability with Turner taking the high road, “ask the people what they want,” and Higgins telling him that when they are out of gas, hungry and cold, they will just want the ‘authorities’ to get it done, and not ask why.  He has a point, doesn’t he?

The moral ambiguity of the ending, the unresolved romance, the unknown future of Joe Turner is what makes this movie really fun.  Joe tells Higgins that the New York Times now has the whole story.  He thinks that will protect him:  he doesn’t quite trust Higgins to be gentle with him, despite Higgins’ show of concern for his welfare.  After all, Joubert told him not to trust anyone.  Higgins is aghast – another Pentagon Papers debacle – but as Joe walks away, he calls to him.  How far can you walk?  “How do you know they’ll print it?”  “They’ll print it,” shouts Joe, but he doesn’t seem totally convinced.

Sydney Pollack turns up at the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final work, and a terrible disappointment to me.  He gives the low down to Tom Cruise who cannot fathom the corrupt orgy he’s witnessed.  Pollack tells him that the high and mighty, the secret governing class, they do things you wouldn’t believe, if you only knew.  Yeah, yeah, I read the papers, we know.  It’s a pretty silly denouement.

Oops…what if they don’t print it?


La politique noir

November 30, 2011

From film noir to la politique noir, and I don’t mean ‘black politics’, as in Black Power.   My reading and viewing have converged at what Philip Pomper, in his biography of Sergei Nechaev, calls, “[the] striking lesson in the disastrous possibilities of revolutionary politics.”  Extreme disturbed personalities, fantastic rhetoric, and violence.  Patty Hearst, Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Ed Begley as a lunatic Texan Cold Warrior, and Nechaev, fact and fiction.  Let’s start with Ms. Hearst.

Patty Hearst, a film from 1988, directed by Paul Schrader, with Natasha Richardson in the lead, is hard to find, but you can get it on DVD.  It doesn’t seem to be an official release, whatever that means, but it is a very fine dramatization of this crazy episode in revolutionary fringe politics.  Schrader is sympathetic to, but not sentimental about Hearst:  a young, sheltered girl who thought she knew a thing or two about the world is kidnapped and kept in a closet for weeks, blindfolded and gagged, treated like a dog, and raped (made a sperm receptacle) by her captors, male, and it seems female as well.  We would all like to think that we would come through this okay, and escape at the first opportunity, rather than imploding and joining the gang, so, as she tells us at the end, her survival, ‘rescue’, and trial were mightily inconvenient for the mass audience following every sordid minute of the tale.

I’ve written about the Symbionese Liberation Front and their rhetoric before, and the film does a great job of dramatizing it.  Ving Rhames (Marsellus in Pulp Fiction) uses that deep voice of his to convey the  incantatory and delusional charisma of Field Marshal Cinque.   The thing is, that as I’m watching it, I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s novel, Demons.  After Patty has joined The Cause, and is helping plan a bank job, she asks, “Will the rest of The Army help us with it?”  Everyone chuckles, and Cinque replies, “It’s just us, there is no army.”  Did Pyotr Verkhovensky really have a network of cells communicating with him?  Some characters wondered.  The similarities multiply.

The members of Hearst’s cell are all white, except for their leader, Cinque, and they all have a major case of white radical guilt.  When Hearst complains that she is hungry, they tell her “This is how black people in our country live every day!  You don’t know!”   Every word Cinque utters is considered brilliant.  At one point, a cell member responds to a rather inept and non-sequitur comment with, “Brilliant, that’s brilliant!  Goddamn it , goddamn I wish I was black!”  Later, he is shown in blackface makeup, the usual disguise they use, attempting to strike a streetwise pose.  This corrosive guilt and lack of self-esteem it brings to political thinking was not new in the 60′s:  Nechaev was very successful in exploiting it in his recruitment of middle-class and upper-class Russians of his own time.

It is well-known the Demons draws heavily on the trial record of Sergei Nechaev, who had a brief period of power within the chaotic Russian revolutionary movement.  He was a manipulator, a liar, a thief, and totally – that’s actually an understatement – unprincipled.  When he started his own journal, it was called The People’s Revenge.   He bilked Herzen and his daughter out of thousands, tried to seduce her after the old socialist’s death, played Bakunin like a fiddle, and committed so many frauds – he was always claiming to have legions of followers at his beck and call – that Bakunin’s association with him gave Marx the leverage to get Bakunin kicked out of the International, that pesky, infantile, anarchist!  (In fact, I have discovered, there is a scholarly literature on the Russophobia of Karl Marx.  He thought they, the Russian revolutionaries, were a bit nuts – how’s that for communist irony!)

What I found  surprising regarding Demons, is how closely some parts of the novel are modeled on Nechaev’s life.  The central murder of the book, in fact, conforms almost exactly to the facts of the case – the botched disposal of the corpse in a pond; luring the victim with a story of a buried press; and the almost comic disorganization of the killers.  We must recall, after all, that Dostoyevsky originally was planning a comic burlesque of nihilist politics when he began his story.  The Wise Serpent of Demons, combines many of Nechaev’s personality traits with a cunning and slyness that the real-life figure lacked.  Nechaev moved with clumsy and ill-concealed cynicism towards his goals, eventually disgusting most of those he worked with in the revolutionary underground.  Still, he was committed to the cause, fanatically, so they cut him a lot of slack.

Pomper dissects his life with a lens tinted with psychoanalytic hues, but not intrusively so:  the Oedipal, infantile anti-authoritarian, and perverse sexual mental contortions of his thinking are quite plain in his writings.  One of his favorite propaganda tropes was to depict the orgiastic and revolting sexual activities of the Tsar, the nobles, or of whomever he was attacking.  Obviously, this sort of rhetoric has a long history – often turned against Jews – and it had a grand future, being part of the revolutionary stock in trade right up to 1917.  His language makes use of religious themes as well, particularly martyrdom, for which he planned, and is in this way curiously linked to the imagery of What Is to Be Done?

I originally bought Pomper’s  biography hoping to find more writings of Nechaev’s, but apart from some letters, and excerpts from articles he wrote, and, of course, the full text of his Catechism, there was not much.  I was particularly disappointed by the absence of a translation of his Foundations for a Future Social Order, the document in which he lays out his plans for society after the revolutionary transformation.  From the bits I have read of and about it, it is a grim vision of a militantly regimented society that seems drawn from the history of ancient Sparta and Fourier’s utopian plans.  What particularly upset some (according to Nechaev) were his notions of communal dining.  This led to Marx’s famous contemptuous dismissal of his ideas as “barracks communism.”  In his world, Pechorin would be less than superfluous:  he would be a pest to be exterminated.

Was Nechaev on his mind when Italo Calvino wrote Beheading the Heads?  In this short story, a tourist happens upon a land where the leaders are ritually executed periodically (as were some kings in ancient times, if The Golden Bough is to be believed).  The action then jumps back in time to show us the nihilist cells planning for The Revolution, after which there will be no leaders other than those who agree to die, and so prevent tyranny.  One man questions whether they should not ritually execute the leaders of their cells since that is what they plan for society.  Are they not hypocrites if they do not?  Naturally, there is some hesitation on this point amongst the revolutionary heads.  They hit upon a compromise:  they will ritually mutilate the leaders at suitable intervals, leaving the post-revolutionary society to fully implement their plan.  It concludes with descriptions of revolutionary activity led by men with no fingers, missing ears, sometimes a wooden leg, each vanished appendage a testament to their zeal for the New World Order.

Finally, we have Ken Russell’s film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), with the always enjoyable Michael Caine.  It’s basically, a mediocre spy film that followed Caine’s work as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File.  The film is enlivened by Karl Malden playing an utter sleaze of an ex-agent gone ‘entrepreneur’  working for ‘General’ Midwinter (Ed Begley), a fanatical anti-communist zillionaire from Texas.  Midwinter is angry at the world, at the government (the password between his men is always, “now is the Winter of our discontent“) and most of all at the commies.  He has a secret plan to use germ warfare against the Russians while his private army of rebels in Latvia begin the dissolution of the Evil Empire.   He mixes Christian fundamentalism with anti-Russian hellfire to work up enthusiasm among his ‘employees’, while his plans are being completely undermined by Malden’s diversion of the mercenaries payroll into his own pocket.  The Russians are onto him too, and they efficiently dispose of his army in an air attack on the frozen Baltic that brings to mind Alexander Nevksy’s victory at Novogorod.  Perhaps it takes a Brit to penetrate to the center of the American Texas phenomenon.  In this case, Russell’s exaggeration was no exaggeration.


Almost Parallel Lives

November 29, 2011

The dates of their lives were very close, but those lives-not by a long shot!  Both had obituaries in the NYTimes today:

Lana Peters, Stalin’s Daughter, Dies at 85

Shown below in a cuddly pose with the great Russian bear, the Red Tsar, and sitting on the lap of Uncle Laventry (Beria), chief of the secret police, later one of its victims, with papa working for the masses in the background.

Ken Russell, Director Fond of Provocation, Dies at 84

He could be flat-out ridiculous, as in his biopic of Tchaikovsky, The Music Lovers, or brilliantly over-the-top in The Devils.  He was not deterred by being a “punching bag” for some critics:   “I believe in what I’m doing wholeheartedly, passionately, and what’s more, I simply go about my business,” … “I suppose such a thing can be annoying to some people.”


Art Corrupting: The Dark Corner & Blue Velvet

August 25, 2011

Watching a lot of film noirs brings with it the problem that many of them just aren’t that good, and  many that are classed as noir, at least by Netflix, aren’t really that at all.  But then you get lucky, and hit on a good one.  The Dark Corner (1946) is the latest for me, and despite its happy ending, it’s a real noir ride into the depths.

Galt (Bradford, not John) is a very hard boiled detective, with the killer instincts and the tough talk to prove it.  His loyal secretary (Lucille Ball, before comic fame) is resourceful, and falling in love with him.  Many scenes in the film play with or insinuate about how she protects, or doesn’t protect, her virtue:  An elderly ticket saleswoman drops her jaw as she listens to them discuss meeting up in his apartment; a milkman gives a sly look as she meets him at the door with Galt behind her, slipping the newspaper from under her arm.

Galt was set up for manslaughter in Frisco, and now wants a new start in NYC, but Cathcart (Clifton Web doing a reprise of his  effete rich man Laura-Lydecker role) sees him as the perfect fall guy for the murder he is planning.  The victim is Galt’s former partner, an unscrupulous blackmailer, who is having an affair with Cathcart’s young and beautiful wife.

The film has a lot of good lines, and Galt’s in particular strengthen the atmosphere of doom, dread, and implacable injustice that is suffocating him:   “I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”

Cathcart is an art dealer, with a decadent and corrupting love of ‘beauty’.  The conversations in his art gallery are absurd, and the walls of his place are covered with paintings which actually hang in the greatest of the world’s museums.  The climax is nicely done as Galt plays a hunch and tries to see Cathcart in his establishment, but he has to pose as a buyer to do it.  Looking at a marble Donatello (That’s what they said it was, but I didn’t recognize it.) he declares:  “I’ll take it.  Wrap it up.  I want the pedestal too!”  Not too convincing.

After Cathcart’s wife shoots him, to prevent Cathcart from shooting Galt, and in revenge for the murder of her lover, we see two cops in the gallery, waiting for the chief to come out.  Who would buy this stuff, one wonders?  Aw c’mon,  it’s aaht!

nice double shot

another double

Cathcart wants to wrap up his plot by shooting Galt and framing him for the murder of his wife’s lover, but she’ll have none of it.  She plugs him three times and tosses the gun.

Blue Velvet has a different sort of sick obsession with art going on.  The film is a sort of mash-up of genres:  noir meets horror, and something else that seems to think it’s clever.  Dennis Hopper plays Frank, a very sick drug dealer who revs himself up for rape, murder, or plain old fornication, by breathing oxygen? nitrogen? through a mask.  This makes him connect with his inner-infant, an infant of the raging Freudian Id type, that is.

Frank holds the husband and son of Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) captive so he can work his will on her.  He is obsessed with the song Blue Velvet, and chews on a piece of similarly colored textile while he rapes or listens to Dorothy do her nightclub singing gig.

Hopper and Rossellini are fantastic, but the rest of the film is a throwaway, with the exception of Laura Dern, who is very strong as the good-hearted, spunky young lady falling in love with the main character, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan).  He’s a good boy in a small town, with a taste for mystery and, he discovers, kinky sex.  The insect motif, the ‘ironic’ portrayal of small town idyllic scenes, and the soundtrack all fall pretty flat for me.  But watch it for Frank and Dorothy, not to mention Dean Stockwell’s small role in a scene that showcases Lynch’s talent for making the utterly bizarre believable.


Gate of Flesh

August 12, 2011

This B-movie from 1964 is discombobulating.  Trashy pulp?  Arty, subverting cinema?  Retrograde trash?  All of them??  Well, it’s in The Criterion Collection, so it must be good, right?

Four prostitutes in post-war Tokyo, a bombed out, rickety metropolis of crowds and slums, set up house together with some strict rules.  One rule is supreme:  no man gets sex for free.  That would undermine their business, and that means their survival in the violent dog-eat-dog world they inhabit.  Into this world falls Shin (Joe Shishido) a macho returned soldier who navigates the criminal underworld.  They give him shelter while he recovers from a wound, and, of course, they all start to fall for him.   Who will break the cardinal rule first, and suffer the consequences?

Family Scene

She broke the rules

Watching the girls administer a whipping to a rule-breaker, Shin only says, “Nice body!”  He has learned a lot in the war:  now he lives for two things – sex and food!

An interesting interview on the DVD concentrates on the director (Seijun Suzuki) and his production designer:  both are serious artists, the designer with a background in theater design.  Refusing the directorial assignment was not an option in the studio system, and, he remarks, it was not his role to comment on the nature of the film.  Two creative guys trying to make something good out of pretty low-class material.  The studio wanted something “erotic,” something similar to “Romano-porn,” and the censors had to be placated.  Studio actresses, except one, would not take the roles because of the story and the nudity.

Nude, but not quite exposed

The colors and sets are weird, sometimes surrealistic.  There is no attempt at ‘realism,’ it’s all very theatrical in appearance.  The decrepit Tokyo was built on a backlot with hijacked plywood and whatever came to hand – verisimilitude would have blown their B-movie budget out of the water!  A couple kisses and rotates in front of the camera; a prostitute seduces a missionary in Gothic churchyard (the designer comments that such a church would have never survived intact in reality); and the girls administer punishment in a half-destroyed warehouse that sets the mode for innumerable cheapo-porno-S&M imitations.  Even the girls’ dresses, each a bright solid color, were selected because anything else was too expensive.  (The director comments wryly that later critics insisted on finding significance in their costume colors.)

Two kissing on a revolving platform

Self-degradation by seducing her former benefactor

Keeping the rules

There are things going on in this film that are hard to process as an American viewer in 2011.  Why does Shishido look like what one critic called, the world’s most badass chipmunk?  Turns out, he had cheek augmentation surgery.  Yes!  Before that, he was a typecast as a standard romantic lead – he looked the part, all slick hair, matinée idol good looks.  And there’s the portrayal of Americans and the use of the American flag – not at all positive.  Why should it be?  The director notes that he served in the army when all he did was flee; Japan was reeling and on the defensive.  In this movie, his “grudge” was apparent he remarks years later.

The film has many split scenes in which the thoughts of one character are present as a fuzzy image over the main scene, as well as a lot of short takes representing the fantasies of the individuals.  In one striking sequence, the girl who seduced the missionary is determined to have Shin.  She follows him and throws herself down, shouting, “Take me!”  Never mind the rules!  He looks at her, and there is a sequence of black and white newsreel images from the war with nothing but an infernal racket and images of tracer bullets flying.  Shin lunges for her.

All the women in the house want Shin, but he tells them they are children, playing at being tough chicks.  Only the one who still maintains elements of Japanese culture is a ‘real woman’ to him.  He respects and longs for that – a counter to the humiliation he feels at being part of a defeated army in a destroyed and occupied land.

He resists her advances

With her, he finds love for a while

Shin’s ‘real woman’ is whipped into a pulp for breaking the rules, and he decides to get away after making a deal.  He’s double-crossed and shot at the bridge in the center of the neighborhood.  The last thing he sees is a mother playing with her baby on the edge of the ruins.  Japan and life itself carrying on, reborn, perhaps?

Last thing he sees

The End


Surreal Times

June 15, 2011

Always happy to see surrealism plastered across the front page of mainstream media!  Whoddathunkit?  The debut of Un Chien Andalou was greeted with a near riot.  Luis Bunuel is laughing…


Diary of a Lost Girl

June 12, 2011

The second great Berlin collaboration of Pabst and the incomparable Louise Brooks:  She plays Thymian, the innocent daughter of a philandering pharmacist who swoons at sexual insinuation, and is raped by her fathers apprentice.  She has a child, and is cast out of the house while the father marries his pretty housekeeper.  The creepy associate takes the mortgages of the business and runs the show.

In the reformatory, she lives a grim, regimented existence ruled by a pair of sadists:  a repressed woman who gets orgasmic beating time on a cymbal to direct meals and evening exercise; and a shaven-headed thug who must have inspired Lurch of The Adams Family.   The only human warmth comes from surreptitious lesbian relationships among the wards.

When the thug manhandles her friend for sneaking in lipstick, Thymian and she escape and make their way to a tony whorehouse that the girl knows.  Thymian is showered with clothing and caresses, but remains innocent…until she swoons again, and joins the business.  Does anyone do swoons as well as Louise?

Her father dies, and she is the heir.  During the legal formalities, she takes the opportunity to snub her rapist and tormentor who responds with, “Filthy slut! ”  She gives away all she receives to the father’s widow who would otherwise be thrown onto the street by the rapist.  Her husband, the pennnyless and dissolute Count Orloff, a childhood friend, commits suicide when he finds that she gave away the money so that her step-sister won’t end up as she did.  Orloff’s uncle wants to make amends for his harsh line with his nephew, and he takes her in.

She joins the do-gooding crusade to save wayward girls run by the uncle’s family relations, and ends up at her old scene of torment.  The sadists adopt a mask of syrupy virtue that fools the high-class reformers, but Thymian sets them all straight about what really goes on there.  Her uncle concludes with the golden rule of social reform.

Brooks is wonderful throughout, and the film has many harrowing scenes of hypocrisy, sadism, and brutal social snobbery that make the conclusion profound rather than sentimental.


Woman in the Window

May 30, 2011

Another Fritz Lang noir, The Woman in the Window doesn’t measure up to The Big Heat, Scarlett Street, or of course, M, but it was fun.  I have a problem with films that have trick endings.  The best part was watching Dan Duryea and Joan Bennett in their nasty pas de deux.

Edward G. Robinson plays another wimp, Professor Wanley, who lectures on Freudian psychology.  What repressed impulses roil his inner psyche, we wonder?

He’s happy in the bosom of his family, but as the film begins, he is being left alone as wife and kids go off on a trip to visit relatives.  Hmmm…while the cat’s away…

On his way to his men’s club for dinner, he stops to admire a striking female image.  It’s clear from his movements before the camera that he is taking in her bosom in detail.  As in Scarlett Street, he’s a man who will be done in by art.

In the safe haven of an all-male environment, he takes a lot of kidding about how he’s free now for a few weeks to go berserk, paint the town, see some burlesque shows.., but in the end, all agree, middle-aged guys just can’t take it, not like they did when they were young!

No, just a quiet night at the club, curled up with a book.  He searches the shelves for a favorite, and what does he find?  The Song of Solomon!  A love poem, Old Testament style, but these professors get their kicks differently.

Well, maybe the intellectuals are not so different from the rest of us.  He’s a man, and there’s the woman in the painting, in the flesh, talking to him!

Yes, that woman in black wants to talk to him.  Who says hot babes don’t find four-eyed professors sexy!  It does happen, you know!  Isn’t that what he was dreaming of all along…and dreams sometimes come true.  He’s married, of course, but what’s the harm of going to her place to admire some sketches for that marvelous portrait?

He transgresses, steps out-of-bounds, reaches for the forbidden fruit, and what happens?  Wet dream into nightmare!  An enraged man enters, proceeds to choke him, and the wan professor has to stab him in self-defense.  What a fix – his reputation is ruined, unless…they can dispose of the body cleanly.

From then on, it’s cat-and-mouse right to the end.  There’s a very funny sequence after the body is found in the country where the professor dumped it:  we see a newsreel in a full theater announcing the news.  The corpse was discovered by a boyscout:

“I wasn’t scared.  Boyscouts are never scared.  If I get the reward for locating his body, I will use it to send my younger brother to a good college, and I will go to Harvard.”

I hear the wry laughter of an Old World immigrant here.


Divorce Italian Style

May 8, 2011

This film is a pitch-perfect satire of male chauvinist culture.  The photography is wonderful, the plotting is hilarious, and Marcello Mastroianni is simply fabulous as the smug, morally corrupt, defunct aristocrat in a Sicilian backwater.

The Baron lives in a decrepit palace that he shares with his wife and another branch of the family – the rest of the building is unused because they haven’t the money to keep it up.  His father is a filthy minded gambler, his wife is a voluptuous, dark-haired southern woman (they all have faint moustaches) who is childishly and effusively loving.

He despises her now, having married her in a moment of weakness brought on by her marvelous hips.  He is lustfully infatuated with his sixteen year old first cousin, a fair-skinned blonde vision of loveliness.  On a family outing to the beach, he takes a break from the sun to retreat to a flowery glade where she is gathering blossoms.  It is their first loving encounter – the cool, lush hollow makes a stark contrast to the blazing sun and white sand where the families remain.  Is it real, or a dream? 

  

Divorce is not legal – the baron’s only recourse is murder.  He dreams of liberation from his fawning spouse, and hatches a plan to lure her into adultery with a long-lost admirer who returns as a professional

 

art restorer at work on the palace.  A local trial of a woman who shot her adulterous husband gives him the idea – crimes of passion and of honor are approved in his world.  The woman, she is a woman after all, was given only eight years.  Certainly, he will get off lightly with less than three:  after all, he is a man, an aristocrat, and he has a college degree!  The defense lawyer was marvelous:  he will be sure to retain him.

The ironies of the presentation or many-layered.  We know that the baron is a selfish and corrupt brute, despite his slick exterior, but we can’t help rooting for him as he plots his crime.  His wife and her silly lover are so stupid and absurdly melodramatic, not to mention the fact that the lover is a philanderer with a family and that he can’t keep away from the palace serving girl.  

We watch the story from several points of view:  the neutral camera view; the baron’s point of view, guided by his self-serving narration;  and the point of view of the male-dominated local culture, expressed in the soaring melodrama of the defense attorney’s speech which the baron hears in his head as he executes his plot.  The bombastic legal schtick is a brilliant counterpoint to the limp but determined evil character of the baron.  The lawyer’s script is balanced by the sermons of the local priest who unctuously reasons out why the congregation must vote for the Christian Democrats: democracy + Christ – spokesman everywhere reinforce the oppressive status quo.  The oppressive heat is a visual metaphor for the suffocating power of social convention.

The baron’s planning is given a luck break when Fellini’s movie, La Dolce Vita, comes to town.  The entire population buys tickets to see the orgiastic cinema spectacular, but his wife does not wish to attend.  Aha!  She will have a tryst with her foolish lover, and the baron can catch them in the act, shoot her, and be done with it!  Of course, Marcello Mastroianni is the star of the movie, lending a delicious self-referential irony to the entire affair – we never see him on    

screen, that is, not in that  movie, on this screen!  The stolid audience is not impressed by the hifalutin antics of Fellini’s cinema.  Things are very simple down there in Sicily.  People are more impressed by another sort of spectacle, such as that trial of the woman who shot her husband.  The defense attorney entrances them…

There are many little touches of humor and irony throughout.  A favorite of mine is when the baron finds his wife’s cache of mementos from earlier days, souvenirs of her romance with the artist.  We see his imaginings of their affair, a photo shoot in some ancient ruins.  He examines the picture:  It’s terribly blurred!  What an awful photographer!  What kind of a souvenir of love is that?  Just what sort of evidence…is…this? 

The baron gets his wish, it all works out for him.  His wife dead, a short stint in prison, and a wedding to his delectable cousin.  He’s all set up to be a cuckhold, for real, this time!


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