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Made in Italy

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Our brothers and sisters in Italy have always had a certain élan when it comes to filmmaking. Indeed, I expect nothing less from the country that not only created a entire subgenre of violent murder mysteries that paved the way for the America slasher flick in the late ‘70s (the “giallo”), but also added their own spin to the tired ol’ western, making way for what would we call the “spaghetti western” today. Yet, for all their efforts — good or bad — many of their works remain low-key to the American public to this day. It’s a real pity, too, since there are some truly exceptional contributions to cinema, such as dramas and documentaries (no, I’m not talking about Mondo Cane, kids), that go widely unnoticed by all.

Therefore, for this helping of “Catching Up at the Video Store”, I have collected six titles that offer a total of seven strange and often wonderful movies from that familiar boot-shaped country.

Enjoy.

· Spaghetti Western Double Feature: The Strangers Gundown / Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die! (1969/1968) (VCI Entertainment)

We’ll begin with that genre of film Italy is perhaps best known for (well, for me at least): the Spaghetti Western, to wit VCI Entertainment has whipped up a double serving of with The Strangers Gundown and Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die! The first film — originally known as Django the Bastard — is one of many unofficial Django flicks produced in the wake of the Sergio Corbucci classic. Here, Anthony Steffan plays a mysterious personification of revenge, who wanders into town to eliminate the men who thought they had killed him. If it sounds like a Clint Eastwood film, it’s because Clint copied it when he made High Plains Drifter four years later.

The second flick in this set, Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die!, is presented here under an alternate title, Today It’s Me…Tomorrow You, and stars Brett Halsey (under the name Montgomery Ford). Co-written by none other than Dario Argento, this one has a man released from prison for a crime he did not commit, and who promptly goes out in search of the man who set him up. Interestingly, the villain here is portrayed by Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai (one of his few non-Japanese roles). The great Bud Spencer co-stars alongside Wayde Preston, Jeff Cameron, and William Berger as the men Halsey/Ford hires to assist him in his plight.

· The Driver’s Seat (1974) (Cheezy Flicks)

Based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark, this mid-‘70s Italian drama is all about an unbalanced spinster (Elizabeth Taylor) who may be plotting her own murder — and who is looking for the perfect man to pull the job off. Of course, we’re really not certain of such; matter of factly, we can’t be entirely sure of what’s going on in the poor woman’s head here. Likewise, many moviegoers and critics (especially the latter) who saw this upon its release in ’74 were wondering just what the hell was going through the head of the once mighty Elizabeth Taylor when she signed on to do this one. A bizarre (and therefore enjoyable) near-giallo from Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, the writer/director of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and featuring Mona Washbourne, Ian Bannen, and the one-and-only Andy Warhol (in one of his few acting roles). Originally released as Identikit.

· Adua and Her Friends (1960) (Raro Video)

Once, many moons ago, a lady I hardly knew came by to inform my then-wife and myself that, of all the things we should not do in life, opening a restaurant was high on the list. This Italian comedy was no doubt the reason why she relayed this bit of advice to us: a comical tale of a prostitute named Adua (the great Simone Signoret), who — along with three of her colleagues (Sandra Milo, Gina Rovere, and Emmanuelle Riva) — decide to get out of the world’s oldest profession and open a café instead. As luck would have it, they find a nice location owned by a man who will even let them use his food license. Unfortunately, there is a condition — they must open up a brothel upstairs. Marcello Mastroianni, Claudio Gora, Ivo Garrani, and Gianrico Tedeschi co-star in Antonio Pietrangeli’s charming dramedy, available for the first time in the US courtesy Raro Video.

· The Law (1959) (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

A memorable Italian/French venture, directed by an American expatriate (hey, it counts I my book). US-born filmmaker Jules Dassin (The Naked City, Night and the City) started out his career in filmmaking as assistants to such noble icons as Alfred Hitchcock, but left the States in the early ‘50s after he was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, heading off to continue his career in Europe. With The Law (also known as La Loi, La Legge, and even Where the Hot Wind Blows!), the late Dassin crafted a great romantic yarn about several men (Marcello Mastroianni, Yves Montand, et al) who all desire the same beautiful woman (Gina Lollobrigida), and the silly bar game they play, known as “The Law.”

· Transgression (1988) (One 7 Movies)

The title says all, kids. This barely-lucid acid trip from the late ‘80s (the waning period of Italian exploitation cinema) concerns of a struggling, mentally disturbed college student (indie filmmaker Pierfrancesco Campanella, who wrote the story here and appears in his only acting role) who gives himself a generous dosage of LSD in order to document his experiences for his thesis. From there, we witness one surreal and often-unsettling seen after another, with co-stars (such as Milly D’Abbraccio and George Ardisson) either hamming it up, phoning it in, or simply trying their best to look unashamed for contributing to this wacky flick from director Fabrizio Rampelli.

· The Anger (1963) (Raro Video)

Every now and then, a video label uncovers a real oddity (see above). Raro Video has done just that with their release of La Rabbia (also known as The Anger), an extremely rare documentary presented here in an uncut and restored presentation. As existential as can be, this documentary asks why the human race is so overrun with “discontent, anguish, and fear.” Comprised of a great deal of post-World War II stock footage, the first part of the documentary is helmed by left-wing filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), while the second half is the work of conservative writer Giovanni Guareschi. Each director brings in two different narrators to sell their side of the argument, including actor Carlo Romano, writer Giorgio Bassani, and even Italian communist Renato Guttuso. Oh, my!

Happy viewing, kids.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.