Thursday 29 September 2011

The Great Silence (1968)

While it’s not Sergio Corbucci’s best-known spaghetti western (that honour goes to Django) there are many who believe that his 1968 movie The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio) is his greatest. Unfortunately those people are wrong.

The movie concerns bounty hunters at the close of the 19th century. A large group of criminals is holed up in mountainous snowbound terrain waiting for a government amnesty. Before the amnesty arrives though they have to survive the attentions of a gang of bounty hunters. The most notorious of these is a man known variously as Loco or Tigrero (the subtitles on the Region 4 DVD insist that he’s called Tigrero). Either way he’s played by Klaus Kinski. He’s the movie’s chief bad guy (although his occupation happens to be hunting down criminals).

The bandits have a champion however, a mysterious stranger known as Silenzio or Silence. We later find out that his nickname comes from the fact that he’s mute as the result of having his vocal cords destroyed by wicked bounty hunters when he was a child. The bounty hunters had killed his father. Silenzio is now a crusader for the rights of criminals sought by bounty hunters. He pursues his crusade by taunting them into drawing first and then shooting them with his nifty machine pistol. He’s the hero of the movie (although his occupation happens to be defending criminals).

When a black woman’s husband, a thief, is shot by Tigrero she employs Silenzio to avenge him. She and Silenzio fall in love.

While this is happening a new idealistic sheriff has arrived in the town of Snow Hill. He doesn’t like bounty hunters and he wants to see Tigrero behind bars. The fact that Tigrero is actually pursuing a perfectly legal if rather unpleasant occupation doesn’t trouble the sheriff too much. He’s sympathetic to the rights of the poor and downtrodden, and he clearly considers that criminals fall within that category.

There’s also a wicked capitalist oppressor, Pollicut, who is in league with the bounty hunters.

With both Silenzio and the sheriff against him you might think that Tigrero would be in trouble, but in fact he’s a whole lot smarter than either of his antagonists.

The Great Silence has strong claims to being the most miserable spaghetti western ever made. Its famously downbeat ending is part of the film’s problem, but not for the reason you might suppose. The fact that it’s downbeat isn’t the problem but the fact that it lacks any dramatic punch certainly is. The whole plot just doesn’t quite develop the necessary dramatic tension. Silenzio is just too inept, too helpless. You really have to buy the naïve political message if you’re going to enjoy this movie.

Jean-Lois Trintignant plays Silenzio. His performance is presumably intended to be moody and intense. It doesn’t quite come off. As a deadly killer he is less than entirely convincing.

The movie’s saving grace is Klaus Kinski. He’s magnificent. He’s gloriously wicked, a man who really loves his job, especially the part that involves shooting people.

Technically the movie is an odd mix of brilliance and incompetence. There’s some stunning location photography, and the mountains and the remorseless snow create a superb atmosphere. But then there are scenes where Corbucci couldn’t even be bothered to make sure the camera is in focus.

This is a movie that the film school crowd will adore. It has the kind of heavy-handed political message that they love so much. And it has those moments of technical incompetence that will have them talking excitedly about cinéma vérité.

A film worth seeing for Kinski’s terrific performance, and for some impressive visuals.

The Region 4 DVD from Force Video is in Italian with English sub-titles.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937)

The DVD cover art might suggest that Riders of the Whistling Skull is going to be just another 1930s B-western, but in fact it’s an odd and quite interesting little hybrid film and worthy of note for cult movie fans.

Sure it has cowboys, and Indians. But it also has a hint of the supernatural, a lost city, an ancient Indian curse, an evil cult, a murder mystery, mummies, a whistling skull, a cliff face in the form of a gigantic skull, a ventriloquist and archaeologists. And it gets bonus points for having the archaeologists wearing pith helmets.

The Three Mesquiteers (Tucson Smith, Lullaby Joslin and Stony Brooke) were apparently the heroes of a large number of B-westerns made by Republic in the 30s. They’re ranchers but they’re always up for adventure and doing good deeds. So when pretty young female archaeologist Betty Marsh turns up and announces that her archaeologist father Professor Marsh has failed to return from his latest expedition they tag along with the rescue expedition.

Professor Marsh had been searching for the fabled lost city of Lukachuke. There’s a treasure connected with the lost city, which leads to the suspicion that there may have been foul play. His colleague Professor Flaxon turns up but is mysteriously murdered after someone douses the lights. One of the Three Mesquiteers happens to be an avid reader of detective pulp magazines and he is convinced that the murderer was a member of the expedition.

From this point on it’s non-stop action as the expedition has to fend off attacks from a secret Indian cult and find the lost city whilst trying to discover the identity of the murderer among them. There’s some pretty reasonable stunt work, director Mack V. Wright does a competent job and there’s some nice location shooting.

The acting is very much B-movie stuff, which adds to the charm of the movie. Ray “Crash” Corrigan plays Tucson Smith. Corrigan was the star of countless low-budget westerns as well as serials such as the delightfully silly Undersea Kingdom. He couldn’t act but he was athletic and good-looking and could ride a horse and that was enough in those halcyon days. The Three Mesquiteers are all brave and pure of heart but without being irritating about it.

It’s all very politically incorrect of course. But it’s good-natured fun and it’s mercifully free from intrusive and annoying comic relief. The whole thing was evidently sufficiently light-hearted not to be deemed to require additional comic relief.

The plot is as goofy and as unlikely as could possibly be desired. The supernatural elements don’t add up to very much but even a suggestion of the supernatural in a western is unusual enough.

This is a movie that cheerfully ignores genre conventions, or rather it combines genre conventions from half a dozen genres and throws them all into one crazy cocktail. And a delightful cocktail it is. This movie is just pure fun.

The Alpha Video DVD release is standard Alpha Video quality. In other words it’s very rough but watchable. It’s such a strange little film that I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Westworld (1973)

Michael Crichton is probably best known as the author of Jurassic Park, but his earlier vision of a theme park gone wrong was actually a lot more interesting. This was Westworld, which he wrote and directed in 1973.

The Delos Corporation has created the ultimate vacation destination, with three sophisticated theme parks - Medieval World, Roman World and Westworld. These are more than just theme parks, they’re essentially virtual reality parks but with robots instead of computer-generated images.

Each of these worlds is populated by robots that are more or less indistinguishable from real people. The guests at the resort can do anything they wish to the robots. Anything. They can shoot them. They can have sex with them. There are no rules. The technology is so advanced that it is impossible for one of the guests to injure another guest by accident, and it is impossible for the robots to harm the guests. Nothing can go wrong. Famous last words indeed.

Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) have chosen Westworld for their holiday. They just can’t believe how enjoyable it all is. Within the first half hour Martin has already killed his first gunslinger, the sinister Black Bart (Yul Brynner). After that it’s off to the local whorehouse. This is so much fun that they even forego participating in a bank robbery in order to sample the delights of the young ladies. They might be robots, but they certainly know how to give a man a good time.

Of course you know something is going to go wrong. Behind the scenes we see lots of men in white coats, the technicians who run the resort. Although actually much of the running of the park is completely automated, controlled by powerful computers. The technology is so complex that the human technicians don’t fully understand it - many of the robots and other features of the park were designed by computers. The human technicians simply slot replacement parts into the damaged robots.

Everything goes fine at first. Of course there are occasional faults in the robots, but they’re well within the anticipated limits. At first. Then the number of faults starts to increase for no apparent reason. The chief technician notes that the occurrence of faults follows a pattern strangely reminiscent of that found in infectious diseases. It’s almost as if there’s a machine virus infecting the robots. And since they’re dealing with machines designed by other machines it’s extremely difficult to deal with such unexpected problems.

The faults had initially been fairly minor, but when a robotic rattlesnake injures a guest, and a robotic medieval wench repulses a guest’s attempted seduction, it’s clear things are getting out of hand. Inevitably the problems escalate until one of the guests gets shot by a robotic gunslinger, but by this time the technicians are losing control of their theme parks.

The movie is notable for being one of the first science fiction stories to deal with computer viruses but there’s a lot more to the movie than that. This is a story that is vastly superior to Jurassic Park because, apart from being much more witty and much more clever it’s also much more aware of the nature of the whole entertainment industry. The Delos Corporation has turned sex and violence into holiday entertainment but then that after all is exactly what movies have done. And Westworld is not a recreation of the Old west - it’s a recreation of old western movies. Just as Roman World and Medieval World recreate an imaginary past derived from movies and other media.

The Delos Corporation doesn’t just cater to male fantasies either. While Westworld with its emphasis on sex and violence is mainly popular with male guests Roman World and Medieval World cater equally for female guests and female fantasies of romance and sex with a spice of danger and exoticism. The real attraction of the resort is not that it offers limitless violence and sex - it’s the freedom from rules that is the main attraction. Sex and/or violence without guilt.

Crichton does a very creditable job as director, and manages to say everything he needs to say in just 88 minutes.

Richard Benjamin is an actor I’ve never cared for but he really is perfectly cast. I generally like James Brolin even less but he’s effective as well. In fact I like the fact that the two protagonists are not overly likeable - it adds an edge to the satire. They’re not exactly innocents. Their idea of the ideal holiday is to spend half their time shooting people and the other half cavorting in the whorehouse.

Yul Brynner manages to play a robot and still give a wonderfully effective performance.

This was a product of the pre-Star Was golden age of movie science fiction, when science fiction movies were still about ideas rather than special effects. Special effects were there to enhance the story, not to replace it. And Westworld is one of the best examples of that approach - an intelligent and very entertaining movie. Highly recommended.

The Region 2 DVD is still in print, it looks great and it’s ridiculously cheap.

Friday 23 September 2011

Siren of Atlantis (1949)

Siren of Atlantis was based on Pierre Benoît's 1919 novel L'Atlantide, which was translated into English as The Queen of Atlantis. It’s one of countless film versions of this classic adventure tale.

With Maria Montez as the star you might expect this one to put the emphasis on camp, and you’d be partly correct.

A French archaeologist has come up with a theory about the lost city of Atlantis. He believes it’s to be found in the middle of the Sahara Desert. His idea is that the Sahara was once the bed of a deep ocean.

His expedition sets off from a Foreign Legion fort and is not heard from again. Captain Jean Morhange (Dennis O'Keefe) and Lieutenant André St. Avit (Jean-Pierre Aumont) are despatched with a rescue party to find the missing scientist.

They find Atlantis. They were expecting ruins, but Atlantis is a living city. It’s a kind of hybrid civilisation, ruled over by the Atlantean queen Antinea but peopled mostly by Tuaregs. An even bigger surprise is that there are quite a few modern Europeans in the city, all survivors of various ill-fated expeditions.

Those who happen to be male and good-looking have the chance of being chosen by the queen as her current toyboy. That sounds like a good deal, given that the queen is very beautiful and apparently very passionate. She is however also capricious. She tires quickly of her paramours. Their fate thereafter is not a happy one. It’s not that she has them killed, it’s just that after enjoying the queen’s favours for a while and then finding themselves discarded they are left as mere wrecks and invariably end up as self-pitying alcoholics.

Lieutenant André St. Avit is therefore not sure how pleased he should be when he becomes the queen’s latest plaything. Any doubts are soon cast aside however - André becomes hopelessly obsessed by the beautiful but easily bored queen.

The queen’s librarian Blades (Henry Daniell) is one modern European in Antinea’s court who was never chosen to share the queen’s bed. He is as a result somewhat bitter and is of a naturally troublesome disposition, He amuses himself by setting St. Avit and Morhange against each other, as he has set many other men against each other in the past. He convinces St. Avit that Morhange has usurped his position in the queen’s favours. This will have disastrous consequences. Equally disastrous will be Morhange’s attempts to escape. This is strictly forbidden, in order to keep the existence of Altantis a secret.

There are some clever plot twists to come which I cannot speak about without giving away spoilers. It’s an interesting and multi-layered story and the film does a fairly good job with it.

The acting is actually reasonably good. Dennis O’Keefe is noble and manly as Morhange, while Jean-Pierre Aumont is suitably vulnerable to Antinea’s womanly charms. Henry Daniell makes a splendidly oily villain. Maria Montez might not hve been the worlds greatest actress but this role is well within her acting range and she acquits herself quite creditably, plus she has the exotic glamour and the dangerous sexuality that is required.

It was not a big-budget picture but it looks reasonably impressive.

There’s certainly enough here to please lovers of camp but there are also unexpected dark overtones to this movie. It seems to have been an attempt to do a fairly serious adaptation of the story and it succeeds to a greater extent than you might expect. It’s a psychological drama and a tragedy rather than a mere campfest. This is a movie that deserves more respect than it generally receives - all in all a pleasant surprise.

Odeon’s all-region PAL DVD release is light on extras but it looks extremely good and it’s pleasingly inexpensive. I recommend this one.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Indian Scarf (1963)

I’ve always been a fan of the German Edgar Wallace krimis of the 60s but now that I’ve got my hands on one of the German DVD boxed sets from Tobis I’m going to have the chance to see a few as they should be seen, in the proper ’scope aspect ratio and without the usual awful English dubbing.

First cab off the rank for me has been the 1963 Rialto production The Indian Scarf (Das indische Tuch).

The plot is one that with variations has been used hundreds of times - the members of an old family are gathered together in the family castle in Scotland to hear the reading of the will of the deceased head of the family, and the will contains the provision that no member of the family will inherit anything at all unless he or she agrees to stay in the castle for six days and six nights. Given that the members of the family all hate each other’s guts this will of course be an exquisite form of torture, and given the extent of this mutual hatred it may well end up being positively dangerous.

And of course a fierce storm arrives right on cue, the telephone lines are washed way and the roads are cut, and these temporary and unwilling inhabitants of the castle find themselves stranded. And conveniently this means that the killer (and you know there’s going to be a killer) must be one of them.

With the stage set it’s time for the mayhem to start. And there’s plenty of mayhem. A whole series of murders, all carried out in the same way - strangulation with a scarf. The body count is very impressive.

LIke I said, it’s a very familiar basic plot, but what matters in this type of movie is whether a creaky idea can be executed with enough style and enough flair to make it entertaining. Luckily the Edgar Wallace krimis usually had those qualities in abundance and this one is no exception. With Alfred Vohrer directing it’s also nicely paced.

The Wallace krimis also benefited from a pool of talented actors who did these films because there weren’t many other movies being made in West Germany at the time - if you wanted to work you were happy to accept these roles.

This one is a little different from the usual run of Wallace krimis in having an amateur detective rather than a Scotland Yard man having to solve the puzzle. In this case it’s the family solicitor, Mr Tanner. Heinz Drache does a solid job in the role, playing the only character who isn’t a raving maniac. The other cast members get to chew the scenery and they set to their task with enthusiasm. Of course you expect Klaus Kinski to be playing someone who’s completely unhinged, and you won’t be disappointed.

Eddie Arent supplies the comic relief in most of the Rialto krimis. And without the customary English dubbing he’s a lot less annoying. In fact he’s quite good.

With a plentiful supply of bizarre characters, lots of over-acting and some energetic direction it’s all a good deal of fun. And there’s a cute twist ending that may provoke groans but since these films were all approached in a tongue-in-cheek manner it’s actually quite amusing.

Watching one of these movies with the original German soundtrack with English subtitles is quite a revelation. It’s definitely a major improvement. For one thing the comic elements are less clumsy and consequently more effective.

Picture quality is extremely good. This is a DVD I can recommend wholeheartedly - the best DVD presentation I’ve seen of any of the Wallace krimis. And the movie itself is thoroughly enjoyable.

The Indian Scarf comes with both the German soundtrack with optional English subtitles and the English dubbed version. Unfortunately this set, which is volume 4 in the Wallace series, is apparently the only one in which all four movies are presented in English-friendly versions (although I’m told that all of the sets include some movies with English subtitles). In any case this particular set is a must-buy if you’re a Wallace krimi fan.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Around the World Under the Sea (1966)

Around the World Under the Sea falls into the category of harmless adventure movies. Not a classic but passable entertainment.

This 1966 movie was produced by Ivan Tors whose specialty was nature-based adventure TV series usually involving cute animals. Always very much G-rated and aimed mostly at kids but characterised by fairly spectacular photography (very spectacular by the standards of 1960s television).

Around the World Under the Sea has everything you’d expect in an Ivan Tors feature film - it’s family entertainment with no sex or violence, the special effects are pretty good, the acting is strictly B-movie standard, there are cameo appearances by cute animals and most of the movie takes place underwater.

The world has been rocked by an unusual number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and while there’s no way of preventing them it might be possible to minimise the devastation by providing early warning. The plan is to emplace fifty sensors at various places on the ocean floor, each sensor having a radio link to a central facility in Washington. A sophisticated research submarine capable of operating at extreme depths will be used to place the sensors. Doug Standish (Lloyd Bridges) is the hardbitten but idealistic scientist chosen to command the expedition.

He now sets about recruiting the other five members of the submarine’s crew, all experts in their fields. There’s Hank Stahl (Keenan Wynn), an expert in breathing devices, crusty but with a heart of gold. There’s Dr Craig Mosby, whose main qualification seems to be that he’s played by the star of Tors’ Flipper TV series. There’s computer wizard Dr Philip Volker (David McCallum), sporting huge horn-rimmed glasses so we’ll know he’s a scientist. There’s Dr Orin Hillyard, played by Marshal Thompson (another star from one of Tors’ TV series, in this case Daktari). And lastly there’s a medical expert, Dr Maggie Hanford (Shirley Eaton). You have to admire a girl who arrives on board a submarine where she’ll be the only woman crew member wearing a sexy dress and high heels.

Making a thrilling action adventure movie that has no bad guys and no monsters is always a challenge. This movie meets the challenge reasonably successfully. There are sufficient hazards to provide at least moderate excitement.

Of course one way to provide some drama would be to have the submarine’s crew of six include one beautiful glamorous woman, which is exactly what we have here. And no less than three crew members become hopelessly obsessed with the bodacious Maggie Hanford.

The other drama is provided by Dr Philip Volker. Movie scientists in that era were usually either idealistic heroes or crazed madmen, but Volker is a little different. He’s in it for the money. He only agreed to join the expedition on the condition that once the sensors have been placed he can borrow the submarine and the crew for a treasure hunt. He’s the closest thing the movie has to be a villain but he’s not really particularly villainous, he’s more of a likeable rogue.

Lloyd Bridges was a natural for a movie like this, being a veteran of 155 episodes of the underwater action adventure TV series Sea Hunt, as a result of which he’d become a fairly proficient scuba diver. And while he was never a good actor he always put so much enthusiasm into his performances that he rarely failed to entertain. Much the same can be said for Keenan Wynn. David McCallum seems vaguely amused by it all. Shirley Eaton as Maggie Hanford isn’t really a femme fatale, she just has a glamourous sexiness that drives male scientists crazy.

The best thing about this movie is that it was made in the mid-60s so it doesn’t try to ram political messages about the environment or sexism own our throats. It’s just a lightweight kids’ adventure film with a cool submarine, good special effects, very good underwater sequences and fun campy performances.

Unfortunately the print TCM screened is a very poor fullscreen version and this movie doesn’t seem to have had a DVD release. I have no idea if the out-of-print VHS release was fullscreen or not.

Friday 16 September 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Planet of the Apes (the 1968 original of course, not the Tim Burton remake) is one of the most beloved science fiction movies of its era. While it’s certainly fun, it’s also a movie that shows its age rather badly.

Charlton Heston had mixed luck with science fiction movies. In the late 60s and early 70s he made quite a few and they were quite successful and pretty well thought of at the time. Sadly they haven’t stood the test of time very well. Soylent Green now seems embarrassing, and while The Omega Man is still a good deal of fun it’s definitely fun with an emphasis on camp.

All of Heston’s sci-fi movies of that period have this in common, that they captured the zeitgeist of the era remarkably well. And that’s their problem. They’re all imbued with that counter-culture radical-chic gloom-and-doom ethos. The world is always suffering some dreadful calamity, and you can bet It’s All Our Fault.

Planet of the Apes has an even bigger problem. Much of its impact comes from the Shock Ending, and by their nature such tricks only work once. Even worse the posters for the movie, and many of the video and DVD covers, revealed the Shock Ending. Of course it’s possible that we’re meant to know the secret while the protagonists don’t, so as to Heighten the Irony. It still doesn’t pack the same punch the second time you see it (and I think this is at least the third time I’ve seen this movie).

Everyone probably knows the plot, but here goes anyway. A spacecraft was launched from Earth in the early 1970s. Travelling at almost the speed of light the journey has taken just a few years for the crew, but on Earth two thousand years have elapsed. They’re on what they think is the return journey when they crash-land on an unknown planet. At first it seems to be desolate and uninhabited, but eventually they find life. But not quite as they expect it. The planet is inhabited by humans and by apes, but the apes are in charge and the humans are regarded as mere animals without intelligence. And without any rights. They’re basically livestock.

That offers the opportunity for lots of heavy-handed satire about our treatment of lesser species and our intellectual arrogance, etc, etc. And even more heavy-handed satire about religion, morality, etc, etc.

The spacecraft commander, Taylor (Charlton Heston), finds himself a captive of the apes. Luckily he’s in the custody of two idealistic and kindly scientists, Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter). They’re surprised to find themselves in possession of a talking animal, and even more surprised when he tells them he arrived on their planet in a spaceship, given that the ape scientists of this planet are convinced that flight is impossible, for men or apes.

The planet’s head scientist is also their guardian of religious truth (more opportunities here for heavy-handed satire) and he’s not happy at all about men who can talk. He plans to solve that little problem by firstly gelding and then lobotomising Taylor, but he forgets that if Taylor can talk he can also understand.

It probably sounds like I didn’t like this movie but in fact I’m quite fond of it. The 60s vibe is quite amusing, the makeup effects were dazzling in 1968 and are still quite impressive. This was no low-budget affair and there’s some spectacular location shooting.

It’s the acting that makes this picture work however. There’s nothing half-hearted about the performances. Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter play the chimpanzee scientists as if they really believed in the roles and it pays off. The performances are good enough to achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.

And then of course there’s Charlton Heston. It’s easy to mock Heston for his outrageous over-acting but more often than not in his movies when Heston chewed the scenery that scenery needed to be chewed. There were certain roles that were just not going to work with anything less than a comprehensively over-the-top acting approach and this is one such role. It works, and Heston in full cry is a joy to behold.

This is the first movie I’ve ever seen in Blu-Ray. The British Blu-Ray release looks good although I’m still not sure Blu-Ray is worth the money or the hassle.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Queen of the Amazons (1947)

Queen of the Amazons is one of those jungle adventure combined with exotic women movies that remained popular from the 1920s right through to the 60s, with a couple of late entries as recently as the 80s. The appeal was obvious - there was the promise of scantily clad women and “forbidden love” plus action and adventure. In fact they rarely delivered on most of these promises, but hope springs eternal in the hearts of movie-goers. And for the studios there was the advantage of being able to use huge amounts of stock footage, so they could be churned out for next to nothing.

This particular example dates from 1947 and was made by one of the Poverty Row studios that existed mainly to fill the insatiable demand for cheap B-movies. A young man has disappeared whilst on safari and since he was working undercover investigating ivory smuggling there is the suspicion he may have met with foul play. The usual miscellaneous group of adventurers - his girlfriend, his pal, his dad, a dotty scientist and a comic relief cook - set off to find him. There seems to be some confusion as to where this ill-fated safari took place they start their search in India but the action soon moves to Africa. Which gives the producers the chance to use stock footage of India as well as Africa!

As their journey progresses they hear rumours of a mysterious white woman ruling a lost kingdom of amazon women, and the rumours hint that she practises voodoo and possibly other wickedness as well. This amazon queen turns out to be not quite what they expected.

Surprisingly enough in the African sequences the stock footage actually features African animals. No tigers stalking the African plains in this one! Even more surprisingly the stock footage is generally at least vaguely relevant to the plot, and is integrated moderately well into the action. The acting is average B-movie standard, and the comic relief is less annoying than in most such movies.

In fact it’s a reasonably competent B-picture, with a fairly coherent plot. There’s some glamour and some action, and at only 61 minutes it feels less padded and better paced than most features of its type. If you’re a fan of this sort of thing (and I admit to having a bit of a soft spot for such movies) it provides adequate mounts of fun and enjoyment with a definite camp tinge to it.

The public domain print that I saw was actually quite decent, with perfectly acceptable image and sound quality.

Monday 12 September 2011

Strip-Tease (1963)

Strip-Tease (Sweet Skin) is a movie totally dominated by its star. Nico (billed in this movie as Krista Nico) had already achieved international success as a model and has appeared in several movies, most notably playing herself in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. She would of course achieve much greater fame a few years later singing with the Velvet Underground and would become a somewhat legendary figure before her death in 1988.

Most of her movie appearances were in experimental features such as Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. Strip-Tease was by comparison much closer to being a mainstream movie. While the title suggests an exploitation movie this is a movie that takes itself fairly seriously.

Ariane (Nico) is a dancer in Paris who has finally got her big break, only to see it snatched away from her when a big name dancer is brought in at the last moment. Disillusioned, she abandons ballet. She is broke when she runs into an old acquaintance. Berthe, after changing her name to Dodo Voluptuous, has been making big money as a stripper. She suggests that Ariane might consider this as a career. Dodo has now married strip club owner Paul and he is willing to give Ariane her opportunity.

Paul comes up with an act for her. Since she’s so stiff and nervous she will play the part of a wooden puppet, stripping along with an actual puppet. Ariane’s first performance is almost a disaster when she loses her nerve but luckily Paul’s strip club is rather up-market and arty and the audience thinks her reluctance to shed her clothes is part of the act. She is hailed as a kind of genius of avant-garde performance-art strip-tease (this is Paris after all).

She is still not entirely comfortable in her new life. Her best friend is a black jazz/blues musician who runs a club named Sam’s. He is played by Big Joe Turner, in real life a legendary blues singer. He’s a kind of father figure to her, and tries to persuade her that the price for hew new-found success is too high.

When an old boyfriend is shocked to discover her new profession she defends herself by saying that she doesn’t take much off. He accuses her of hypocrisy, and after thinking about it she decides he’s right. That night she does her first full-fledged strip.

Ariane has meanwhile attracted the attention of wealthy playboy Jean-Loup. He is idle, fabulously wealthy, extravagant, pretentious and good-looking. She is drawn into an affair with him, but she will soon find out what he really thinks of her and she will have to decide what she now thinks of herself.

This is one of those sexy arty rather serious French films of that era that could easily end up taking itself too seriously for its own good. Surprisingly though it works rather well. The moody black-and-white cinematography and the atmosphere of sin, glamour, decadence, art and style makes for a fairly entertaining movie.

Even more surprisingly perhaps, its biggest strength is Nico’s acting. As you’d expect, given her later image, she’s mysterious and oddly detached but this works in her favour. She is playing an outsider, a woman who feels rather detached from her own life. She is of course a foreigner as well, a German in Paris, a kind of exile.

And of course she has that extraordinary exotic beauty.

The music is a highlight as well. Serge Gainsbourg not only wrote the music but also makes a cameo appearance. The title song was originally recorded by Nico herself, being in fact her first ever recording, but at the last moment it was decided to substitute a version sung by Juliette Greco.

This was the early 60s so there isn’t a huge amount of flesh on display although by 1963 standards it was pretty racy.

Mondo Macabro have done a fine job with the widescreen transfer and as usual they have provided some worthwhile extras.

A well-made movie, worth seeing for the atmosphere of early 60s Paris, for the music, and for Nico’s odd but effective performance.

Friday 9 September 2011

Payment In Blood (1967)

Payment In Blood (Sette winchester per un massacro) may not be one of the great spaghetti westerns but fans of the genre will still find plenty to enjoy.

In the aftermath of the American Civil War former Confederate officer Colonel Blake leads a gang of brigands in Texas just north of the Mexican border. They operate on both sides of the border and both the US and Mexican governments have put a price on their heads. Blake and his men like to give the impression they’re Confederate loyalists continuing the good fight against the damned Yankees but in reality they’re murdering cut-throats.

It seems as if time has run out for one of these bandits. Chamaco is about to be executed by a firing squad. Just in time a Mysterious Stranger appears and Chamaco is rescued. The Mysterious Stranger is named Stuart and he says he wants to join Blake’s gang. To take a stranger to Blake’s secret headquarters is against all the rules but then Stuart mentions that he just happens to know where the treasure of General P. G. T. Beauregard is buried. This much-rumoured fortune in gold disappeared in the closing days of the Clvil War and Blake has long cherished a desire to find it.

So Stuart gets to join Blake’s bandit gang. Blake doesn’t entirely trust him but he wants that gold. A plan is hatched. It will require the gang to get through a pass heavily guarded by US soldiers and then through the nearby town to reach the Indian cemetery where the treasure is hidden.

Of course there has to be a double-cross in there somewhere, and along the way there are ample opportunities for mayhem. There’s also a touch of romance, not something you necessarily expect in a spaghetti western. The beautiful Manuela claims to be as loyal to the Confederate cause as Blake but she causes considerable dissension. The other bandits believe that women and loot should be equally shared while Colonel Blake has decided that Manuela should be exclusively his. Manuela has ideas of her own as will soon become apparent.

As you expect from a spaghetti western there’s a great deal of violence. Everyone has unlimited ammunition which they expend lavishly, no-one ever has to stop to reload and the body count mounts steadily culminating in a huge gunfight which turns into a massacre.

Guy Madison walks off with the acting honours as Blake, giving a wonderfully cynical and vicious performance. Luisa Baratto is fiery and memorable as Manuela. Edd Byrnes as Stuart is the weak link - he just doesn’t seem mean enough or grungy enough.

Enzo G. Castellari’s energetic direction isn’t brilliant but it gets the job done. The climactic set-piece in the Indian tomb is certainly impressive.

This is another of the spaghetti western mystery DVDs I picked up recently in a bargain bin recently. There’s nothing on the discs or the cases to identify the company that released them but they’re NTSC discs so they’re obviously American imports. I assume they’re from Wild East productions since that company seems to be the only possibility. In any case they’re all, including this one, quite reasonable widescreen transfers. No extras, but appealingly cheap.

Don’t set your expectations too high for this one. Castellari is no Sergio Leone. If you approach it with that caveat in mind and you’re in the mood for a spaghetti western then you could do a lot worse.