"the telephone" (mario bava, 1963)

Many years ago, I wrote about a favorite horror movie from my youth, Black Sabbath. It was a 3-part anthology, hosted by Boris Karloff, who also appeared in one of the stories. I'm going to quote myself at length here:

One of the stories, “The Telephone,” is about a bisexual call-girl, Rosy, who keeps getting phone calls from her ex-pimp Frank, who has escaped from jail. Frightened, she calls her lesbian former lover Mary … they’re estranged, but Rosy has no one else to turn to, so her ex comes to her apartment. She gives Rosy a tranquilizer to help her sleep, then sits at a desk and writes a confession. She was the one making the calls, impersonating Frank … she heard Frank had broken out of jail and thought to scare Rosy, knowing Rosy would call her and she could come to her aid, bringing them together again. While she is writing her confession, Frank sneaks in, strangles her, then tries to kill Rosy. But Rosy has a knife under her pillow, and she kills Frank instead.

If you saw Black Sabbath when you were young, you might not remember this one in quite the same way. Turns out the entire episode was reworked for the American market. The lesbianism was removed … the estrangement now comes because Mary was with Frank and Rosy took him from her. Rosy was no longer a call-girl. Mary doesn’t impersonate Frank … Frank is the one calling Rosy, which is scary, because Frank died some time before this. The letter Mary writes, her “confession,” is now an admission that she will be calling a shrink for her friend, who is clearly deluded since she thinks she’s getting phone calls from a dead man. Frank shows up, kills Mary, Rosy kills Frank … and we get one last phone call, as Frank tells Rosy she can’t kill him because he’s already dead, and he’ll be calling her every night.

I go into such detail because the changes were so huge, yet were pretty seamless, i.e. I had no idea all of these years that I was seeing a different film entirely. Since the American version was dubbed, it was easy to change the dialogue to fit the new version. What was originally a noirish tale of love and revenge became a horror story about a ghost. As luck would have it, the version I saw was on MGM HD … and guess which version they have the rights to? Yep … I still haven’t seen the original.

Well, it turns out Kanopy has the original, called I tre volti della paura ("The Three Faces of Fear"). And I had recently recorded the film, and it was sitting on our DVR taking up space. So I decided to watch "The Telephone" in the original, and then again in the doctored American version. The above explanation is quite accurate. The American version also had a different soundtrack, provided by Les Baxter, that was more intrusive. Both versions had elements of suspense, but it was nice to finally see the original, with subtitles and its different plot.

le cercle rouge (jean-pierre melville, 1970)

Gradually, I am catching up to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. Of course, he's been dead for almost 50 years, but better late than never. Le Cercle Rouge is my fourth Melville movie, and it's not just that I liked them all, it's that they are all very good indeed. Bob le Flambeur, Le Samouraï, Army of Shadows ... hard to pick a favorite amongst them. Le Samouraï in particular was a big influence on John Woo.

Le Cercle Rouge is another strong film. It was Melville's penultimate film ... he died in 1973. He wasn't well-served in the U.S. Le Samouraï, made in 1967, didn't make it to the U.S. until 1972, in a poorly-dubbed version titled The Godson (guess what hit movie had recently been released). Army of Shadows won multiple awards on its release in the USA ... almost 40 years after its initial release. Le Cercle Rouge, which runs 140 minutes, was released in America in a truncated version missing more than 40 minutes.

Le Cercle Rouge is a heist movie, and the actual heist is almost half-an-hour long and features no dialogue. (It's very tense, as you can imagine, but I also confess that at one point, what seemed to be a stationary camera focused on ... well, I don't know what. It took me about a minute to realize the Blu-ray was stuck.) I've seen a lot of Alain Delon's movies and they are all good-to-great. As I wrote about Purple Noon, "Alain Delon seems to intuitively know what makes a movie actor. It is rare that you see Delon doing anything ostentatious, and in those rare occasions, he is serving the script. For the most part, he watches others, learning how to become them in the manner of a chameleon, while his physical beauty grabs our attention no matter who or what else is on the screen."

I might start with Le Samouraï or Army of Shadows, but Le Cercle Rouge is equally worth your attention. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

paisan (roberto rossellini, 1946)

Paisan was the middle film in a trilogy Rossellini released just after WWII, after Rome, Open City and before Germany Year Zero. I am not alone in thinking Open City was the best, but all three are important films. Rossellini combined documentary techniques and mostly amateur actors to create a neo-realistic approach to his fictions. He was a major figure in Italian neo-realism, with this trilogy being perhaps the foremost example.

Paisan is broken into six episodes that roughly tell a chronological account of Italy from the moment when the Allies invaded Sicily. A common thread throughout is the difficulties the various characters have communicating with each other, since they speak different languages. In the first episode, a local Italian woman helps an American patrol where only one of them speaks Italian. In a later episode, some American chaplains stay at a monastery. The language isn't the only source of communication difficulties, because only one of the chaplains is Catholic (the others being Protestant and Jewish).

While the episodes have a certain flow, they also serve to break up the continuity in a way that reflects life during wartime. It's hard to predict what will happen next, both for the audience and for the characters in the war. This adds to the special version of realism the film embodies.

The music, by Rossellini's brother Renzo, is unfortunate. Renzo was an accomplished composer, and the quieter scenes in Paisan are effective. But whenever the action becomes rousing, the music overstates things, overwhelming the visuals, sounding like nothing more than canned background music. #205 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

the great beauty (paolo sorrentino, 2013)

Some times I watch a movie and a few days later I realize I haven't written anything about it because I have nothing to say. This isn't the case with The Great Beauty, which I watched a few days ago but haven't made any comments on it yet. The Great Beauty is lovely in ways that I find hard to articulate. It reminds me of other films, but it's very much its own movie.

This is the second Paolo Sorrentino film I have watched recently, the other being The Hand of God (I also liked Il Divo). The films look beautiful (the cinematographer here is Luca Bigazzi, who also did Il Divo). To my untrained eye (I've never been to Italy), Sorrentino's movies feel authentic to what I imagine is Italy, as a country, as a culture, and even as something affected by geography (north and south are not the same). I read many comments comparing The Great Beauty to Fellini's work, and I can see that. There is a cross-section of humanity, albeit more interested in the upper-and-upper-middle classes. I often find Fellini too absorbed in what comes across in his films as freakish people, but Sorrentino doesn't fall victim to that. At some level, he likes most of his characters here, and the one time someone is dressed down, it's because they don't accept the bemused fatalism of the main character, Jep, and his friends:

You're 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little.

Sorrentino has affection. There are some similarities to La Dolce Vita, and The Great Beauty would make a good, if long, double-bill with Fellini's classic. Of course, The Great Beauty comes later ... it's partly a commentary of the earlier film. I imagine Sorrentino has affection for Fellini's characters, too. For me, The Great Beauty is kind but unsparing, as the above quote suggests ... on the brink of despair, always with a little joke.

Toni Servillo is Jep, and without him, the movie would suffer greatly. I'm liking him more every time I see him. With The Hand of God, I noted the wonderful performance by Luisa Ranieri as middle-aged woman who carries an intense aura of sexuality and a troubled emotional background. Sorrentino repeats this with The Great Beauty, this time with Sabrina Ferilli, new to me but not to the world of Italian cinema. She isn't as troubled as Ranieri's characters ... she seems to be in something of the same place with Jep. She is a well-drawn character, and Ferilli does her justice. #151 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

the hand of god (paolo sorrentino, 2021)

Autobiographical film from Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) about a young boy in a town, Naples, that loves Diego Maradona. While we only see Diego on television (and some distant shots played by an actor who is pretty good at free kicks), he is a central character in the movie. The primary local soccer team, Napoli, had struggled for some time while teams from Northern Italy were enjoying success. Napoli paid a record fee to bring Maradona to Napoli. He was the greatest player of his era, perhaps the greatest of all time, and with him, Napoli returned to the heights of Italian soccer. The Argentine became an icon to the people of Naples ... late in his life he was named an honorary citizen of the city.

The young boy, Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), decides to become a film director as he becomes a young man. Much of this follows the real life of Sorrentino. The first half of the film draws an insightful panorama of life in Naples through the eyes of Fabietto. Family and community are paramount, and the people are lovely, each in their own way. Also, the importance of Maradona to the community is made clear. But then something tragic happens in the life of Fabietto, and the film loses its flow. While the earlier half of the movie covers a period of a couple of years, it's all of a piece. After that, what we get is more a series of vignettes, many of them interesting (and many of them based on the "real"), but the flow is gone. The first half of the film is a classic; the second half is promising but ultimately unfulfilling.

Scotti is very good as Fabietto, and the rest of the cast fits right into their characters. Special kudos to Luisa Ranieri, who plays Fabietto's aunt ... she exudes an aura of sexuality that burns off of the screen, but she also conveys the troubled psyche of a woman who is troubled, emotionally and mentally.

The Oscars are in a few days, and I may not see any more of the nominated films before then, so here is a quick look at those films. I've seen 9 of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture ... here they are, with links to my posts:

My #1 film of 2021, Summer of Soul, is nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

As for the rest, I think Drive My Car deserves every award for which it is nominated, and I'd like to see Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas win Best Song.

For the acting awards, my only opinions are that Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) is easily the best of the supporting actress nominees, and Andrew Garfield (tick, tick ... BOOM!) is the worst of the best actor nominees. I've seen 17 of the 20 acting nominees.

Finally, here is a work-in-progress ... a Letterboxd list of my Top Movies of 2021.

flee (jonas poher rasmussen, 2021)

You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.

The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.

Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.

It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.

el verdugo (luis garcía berlanga, 1963)

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Berlanga, much less seen one of his movies, although in this clip, Pedro Almodóvar says all of Spanish cinema derives from Berlanga and Luis Buñuel.

El Verdugo (The Executioner) is his most renowned film (#265 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). It's an often charming movie that gradually becomes unsettling, as the protagonist finds he has become the executioner, a job he never wanted. While El Verdugo is a comedy for the most part, it's not laugh-out-loud. The humor lies in the way our hero finds himself ensnared in a position he wants to avoid, and for most of the picture, it's enjoyable to see his options lessen. But at some point, he realizes, and we in the audience realize, that he really is going to become an executioner.

There clearly are subtle references to life in Spain under Franco, references that went over my head. Berlanga pokes fun at the complications of bureaucracy, but whatever is specific to Franco's Spain, I missed. (It suffered from censors' cuts.) Because of the lack of understanding regarding the social context, I was left with the characters, and they brought plenty of enjoyment on their own, albeit at their expense (as we watch them suffer).

The film was a Spanish-Italian production, with Italian actor Nino Manfredi as José Luis, the undertaker's assistant who falls into the executioner's job. The primary Spanish actors, Emma Penella and José Isbert, had long careers in Spanish film, although again, they were new to me.

The final scenes, wherein the new executioner has his first assignment, are cleverly staged and very disturbing, because while José Luis is in some ways unlikeable, Berlanga takes us deep enough into José Luis' predicament that we feel for him. It's masterful.

geezer cinema: beckett (ferdinando cito filomarino, 2021)

I guess John David Washington is a thing now. He starred in Tenet, which was a Geezer Cinema movie for us a couple of months ago. I wrote a few paragraphs without ever mentioning his name (I did talk about Elizabeth Debicki, though). He's not bad in Tenet, nor is he bad in Beckett, although his most notable feature seems to be the oddity of hearing the voice of his father Denzel coming out of John David's mouth. Beckett reminds you of other good movies, particularly the paranoid thrillers of the 70s. The problem is, Beckett isn't as good as the best of those films. Truth is, it's not as good as a lot of films that come to mind, and if that sounds vague, well, I'm still not sure what the hell Beckett was about so I'm going with vague.

Washington is a good choice to play an average Joe who needs to demonstrate some staying power during the kind of physical action that normally would go to a stuntman. But the character is like Job ... everything happens to him, and he keeps coming back for more. The Energizer bunny is a good comp, or the new-model Terminator played by Robert Patrick in T2 that was indestructible. I think they were trying to suggest John McClane in Die Hard, but Beckett is nowhere near as good a movie, and eventually the things that pile onto Beckett become too ludicrous to ignore. Linda Holmes began her review of the film:

There is a moment in the new Netflix thriller Beckett in which the main character played by John David Washington — who's already been in a rollover accident, been shot, been tased, been stung by bees, and likely broken both of his ankles — gets flex cuffs slapped on him, and now he's on the run ... in flex cuffs. The movie isn't even half over.

For what it's worth, Holmes kinda liked Beckett. And I wanted to like it ... I have nothing against mindless action, even though I usually roll my eyes at attempts to add meaningful context by claiming the movie is about politics, Greek, American, or whatever. But Beckett is ultimately just plain stupid, and by the time it ended, I had given up all efforts at any suspension of disbelief.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]

film fatales #99: the headless woman (lucrecia martel, 2008)

The Headless Woman (2008) came between the other two Lucrecia Martel movies I have seen (La Ciénaga (2001) and Zama (2017). Of Zama, I wrote that "its pleasures have less to do with narrative thrust and more to do with the feel of each scene" and "Martel isn't really concerned with audience ease." It's not that her films are impossible to grasp, but she does require you to meet her more than halfway.

The most intriguing mirror of The Headless Woman comes from the 1962 B-movie Carnival of Souls. Martel has cited that film as an influence, and there have been some good analyses of The Headless Woman that take off from that point. (Check out Catherine Grant's video essay "The Haunting of The Headless Woman".) Both films begin with women in auto accidents who spend most of the rest of the film confused about, well, everything. María Onetto, who plays Vero, perfectly shows us the character's befuddlement. She's helped by Martel's script and direction ... Martel is not someone to present the audience with obvious points we can center on. Odd camera angles, where the characters are just off-camera, help us feel Vero's unsettling experiences. (Martel also uses a lot of static camera shots, which give us time to gather information off the screen.) Vero eventually seems to reconcile herself with whatever happened, although I found her revelations less impressive in that by that point, I was too unsure of what I was seeing to trust my sense that Vero had moved on.

The Headless Woman always keeps us in its world on a scene-by-scene basis. But, as with her other films, you can't count on an easy narrative. #650 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. #68 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

A Letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.

divorce italian style (pietro germi, 1961)

This is the fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 5 is called "Commedia all'italiana Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Commedia all'italiana (i.e. "Comedy in the Italian way") or Italian-style comedy is an Italian film genre...widely considered to have started with Mario Monicelli's I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) in 1958 and derives its name from the title of Pietro Germi's Divorzio all'italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961).

Rather than a specific genre, the term indicates a period (approx. from the late fifties to the early seventies) in which the Italian film industry was producing many successful comedies, with some common traits like satire of manners, farcical and grotesque overtones, a strong focus on "spicy" social issues of the period (like sexual matters, divorce, contraception, marriage of the clergy, the economic rise of the country and its various consequences, the traditional religious influence of the Catholic Church) and a prevailing middle-class setting, often characterized by a substantial background of sadness and social criticism that diluted the comic contents."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Commedia all'italiana film.

I had 160 films to pick from, and I figured I would only have seen a few. Turns out I'd never seen any. So I went with the film from which the name of the genre is derived.

Divorce Italian Style won many honors, including an Oscar for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen (winning over Last Year at Marienbad, Through a Glass Darkly, Freud, and That Touch of Mink). Marcello Mastroianni was nominated for Best Actor, the first male actor nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in a foreign language performance. Pietro Germi was nominated for Best Director. (They lost to Gregory Peck and David Lean, respectively.) The honors are deserved ... Mastroianni carries the film with a performance that walks a line between serious and absurd, and the screenplay by Germi along with Ennio De Concini and Alfredo Giannetti is perfection. The plot is farce ... Mastroianni plays a nobleman from a dissolute family who is unhappy in his marriage, and in love with his teenage cousin (it's likely mostly lust, but he thinks it's love). Due to ancient Italian law, this man can murder his wife and get off with a lenient sentence if he can show he has been cuckolded, so he sets out to pair his wife with a lover so he can catch them in the act, kill her, spend a few years in jail, and come out to marry his young cousin. The plot advances like clockwork, Stefania Sandrelli is appealing as the cousin, and Daniella Rocca is suitably bothersome as the wife.

The whole thing is a comedy ... "in the Italian way" ... and I smiled quite often. But it is not a laugh-out-loud movie, and while it isn't trying for that effect, I did find myself admiring the film without loving it. Put that on me ... Divorce Italian Style does indeed border on perfection, but I might have wished for a little imperfection.